I was very lucky growing up. My childhood was ideal. And I’m not just saying that because my parents read my columns — in fact, I don’t think they even read the last one, and were mostly distracted by the cover. I have thought about this a lot, because I don’t get along with a lot of the people I meet in this city, and I’ve been wondering why.
When I was five, my parents bought a block of land in Barrington, NSW, which is kind of near Taree and Forster. Over the next four or so years, we built a mud-brick house on it. My parents, a variety of relatives and some guy called Trent, who we found on the side of the road in town, built the house over weekends, school holidays and all manner of other days off that we had over the course of my primary school career.
Barrington is rural. I have fond memories of throwing rocks in the river for hours (before I learned how to skip them), canoeing around the little billabong — occasionally falling into the stagnant water. We climbed all the trees in the bush, made pretend food out of moss and other bits of nature. It was a proud moment for me, the day that my parents let me lay one of the bricks in the kitchen, and I did my best to help pave the steps that led to the front door. More often than not, my help ended with a desperate plea to “go play in the bush, please”, but I wasn’t particularly deterred.
I have vague memories of my parents having several near-death experiences during the construction of the house. Dad fell through the ceiling on one occasion, and my mum almost drove off a cliff. I think Dad almost knocked us into the billabong with a boulder at one point, but near misses make good stories, and nobody was ever more badly hurt than when we had run-ins with the bully-ants up the hill.
The nearby town of Gloucester had a yearly celebration in winter called “Snowfest”, when a truckload of “snow” would be brought down the mountain and dumped in the park. There were snowman-building competitions and the NSW Rural Fire Service would provide the goodie-bags.
When the house was finally complete, we had the comforts of hot water and electricity. In the evenings, we would gather kindling to bring a fire to life in our old, iron potbelly stove, while Mum made some sort of delicious stew and Dad finished fencing the perimeter off to keep out the neighbours’ goats and cattle.
We had warmth and light, but the house still doesn’t have a phone line, mobile reception or television. We played board games, walked through the bush, made cubby-houses, tamed bush-turkeys and invented thousands of strange games to pass the time. A few trees covered in flood-rack provided a house for fairies, Norah and Alistinia, who ate from round leaf plates that dropped from one of the weight-bearing columns.
Needless to say, we weren’t the best-dressed kids at school, back home. Most of our wardrobe consisted of very practical, but somewhat daggy overalls, tracksuit pants with ankle-cuffs and skivvies. Mum made a lot of our early clothing and it always fit pretty well.
I guess where I’m going with all of this is that my experiences in the Australian bush are, quite possibly, more important to me than I can really relate through a column like this. The separation from city and suburban living, our learned appreciation of willy-wagtails and water-rats is absolutely invaluable. I still go to that house with my friends, housemates and colleagues when I have the chance, and I show them the cows being milked at the dairy farm. We canoe down the rapids in the Barrington River, and we talk about how very lucky we are to really have a break from this smoggy jungle of skyscrapers. When I ask for company to drive up the hill and get reception, send a text or check our emails, I rarely get a taker. Everybody needs a break, and there’s no place better than in a house in the bush, made from mud, overlooking a billabong and 50 species of birds.