Each afternoon my nine-year-old son takes a spade much too big for him and goes down into the backyard to dig. As he digs sometimes tics fall off the callistemons onto him, to which he remains oblivious. Here is a list of some of the treasures he has uncovered: a sewing machine, empty oil containers, broken glass in various shapes and shades, rusted cans, the steel frame of a garden chair, a broken radio, plastic pots, enamel bowls patched with scabs of moss and rust, a mix-master, four 44 gallon drums, bits of old washing machines machines, the wheels of a pram, nuts and bolts and screws and nails; lots of other sundry junk.
In fact the backyard is a tip. It was a tip before we moved in and I let my son loose with the shovel. He just loves digging. I must say that neither of us knew it was a tip because it looks so beautiful and evergreen. It is a tip that has transformed into a veritable oasis under the weight of ivy, jasmine, pussy willow, honeysuckle, all the other noxious weeds that have choked the yard into the verdant paradise it now is. I looked up a book of toxic poisons of the natural world and nearly all of them can be found in my backyard, including iris, rhubarb and green potatoes planted too close to the tomatoes. Ah well. We live with snakes and spiders, what are a few noxious weeds? Could it be that under every oasis is the root of its own contamination? Maybe, but that is too highfalutin for my son.
Apart from the rubbish he has found there is a fair amount of debris that I have unearthed or univied, and tossed out on indestructible rubbish days. It makes quite a pile. The reason for all this garbage is the old bastard who used to live here before us. Old Tom. He of the leaky bladder and silver wallpaper. He was a local con-man who made a good living collection horse manure and selling it to widows and pensioners. His wife left him because, in her words, he couldn’t lie straight in bed. He used to pretend that he had leukemia so that the widows would feel sorry for him and buy the manure even if they didn’t want any. I helped him shovel the shit on a few occasions. This was in my manual labouring days. We bought the house off him at a good price. I wondered what the catch ws. For a while there didn’t seem to be one, until I started exploring the backyard.
Old Tom was a hoarder. He collected every piece of shiny, collectable junk he could get his miser’s hands on. I have an image of him, once the allure of the bauble had worn off, standing on the balcony and hurling it down into the gully to be eventually buried under autumn. But 44 gallon drums? We live in a sensitive area. Old rusty drums leeching their seepage into the catchment tributaries of Warragamba dam are not a good idea. Tom was a reprobate. And a smelly one at that. A lot of internal renovation has gone in to expunging his aura and his odour from our lives. The silver wallpaper was the first to go.
However it’s not all detritus and garbage. There are some beautiful fruit trees, lilacs, and rhododendrons; the mountain ash sway in the wind with the sound of waves on shingle. Something else which lives in this not completely pristine environment is the rare, endangered Leura skink. Like my son it finds the backyard a happy place to live. Although it has been recognised as rare and endangered by staff at Taronga Park zoo, in our backyard and its neighbouring gully it seems rather plentiful. However it must be called rare and endangered for good reason. It is a longish, speckled lizard, about the length of my hand from wrist to fingertip. Fully grown it is both lean and slightly chubby, or at least well-fed. Fast as a snake it will throw itself down steps, clattering into the dead, underhanging fronds of agapanthus. They’re always scuttling out from under your feet during summer, giving you a little heart spasm.
Collecting them in tin cans is another of the things my son enjoys doing, before releasing them to the rocky, dry-stone crevices in which they like to hide. The rare and endangered Leura skink makes a little squeak, which might, if magnified a hundred times as they did to some similar saurian creature in the film of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, sound rather fearsome. My son reports that if you hold one in your hand you can feel its heart beating. Also that it has a painful nip.
As I say, the rare, endangered Leura skink seems to be in no short supply around here. Looking at the backyard it’s reassuring what they’ll put up with. The reason I like them is because they have helped me thwart several development proposals for the bush block next door, which is also covered in ferns, ivy, privet, holly, sheets of corrugated iron and various bits of rubbish tossed there by old Tom. This I know because I am slowly removing and disposing of them in a responsible way. I say ‘thwarting’ the development proposals because we have, the skink and I, not defeated them outright. An evil property developer has put the same application before Council on at least three previous occasions. I hate the way they say put the application before Council, with a capital, rather than put the application before the council, as if disposing of the article bestows more authority on an otherwise pedantic bureaucracy.
There are threats to take the rare, endangered Leura skink to the Land and Environment court. I like rare and endangered things. Not for their rarity, but because, like talent or luck, they need a little nurturing. Which is why I pull out the scotch broom and holly when I find it. More selfishly I do not want such a development next door and all the inconvenience this would entail. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. I do not want my neighbours too close. The rare, endangered and noisy skink is enough. This is an example in microcosm of how vested self-interest and the environment can work together. I sometimes worry should polling see a change of local government that some development committee might declare that the Leura skink has had a good go and should now take its chances on the open market. Do bureaucrats think like this? I hope not, but I am not telling them how many my son may or may not have caught in his tin can.
I am sure they take other reasons into consideration when deciding these things, such as the destruction of pre-existing amenity, industrial run off into water catchment swamps and fragile ecosystems. Reasons that I have lodged before the Council time and time again. My main concern is to clean up my own backyard as best I can of all the mess I have inherited. But, and I say this advisedly, I don’t want the skink to get cocky about it. I don’t want their numbers to get out of hand. You see the dilemma. It is its own worst enemy. Too many rare, endangered Leura skinks and the gates for the wholesale destruction of its habitat will be flung open, not to mention the destruction of the pre-existing amenity of my back yard and the vacant block next door. The profligate skink has no friends. No, the skink’s greatest chance of survival is its modest rarity; its invisibility in the eyes of evil developers. A paradox, huh? You can see how I have arrived at this point of contradiction in a rather disjointed and circuitous manner. I like the skinks. Prodigal or otherwise. They give me a feeling of virtue. I like how on hot days they will come inside to cool their bellies on the floor boards, looking decidedly alien in the weird world of the kitchen. I like how, when startled, their claws skate on the tiles, going nowhere like a cartoon character. I like their existence in the world whether I can see them or not.
I call my son up from his digging. His needs are simple. He likes the interesting bits of junk he finds. He doesn’t approve of me throwing them away. I run his bath and inspect his scalp; then the soft skin of his armpits and behind his ears for tics, which I am not fond of, but which also, apparently, have their place in the scheme of things.