Last week I was on a self-styled writing retreat in country NSW, near the Hunter Valley, and it was sublime. I spent most of the week at this desk, staring out at this view of the Williams River. I was interrupted only by eastern rosellas, kookaburras, and one dead mouse that showed up in the middle of the kitchen on our last morning like the perfect metaphor for the piece of writing I was working on, ie lifeless and a bit cliched.
The writer friend I was with, A, was a bit skittish of mice, so guess who had to scoop the fresh mouse corpse into a dustpan and drop it into the trash? I imagined it was the end the mouse would have wanted, laid (well, dumped) to rest among a week’s worth of food scraps.
Occasionally we stopped writing and went to explore this new corner of NSW. I can sum up our explorations in three incidents.
1. We go for lunch in Morpeth, a town that features a historic bakery, exclusive parking for ‘tourist coaches’, and, by law, a lolly shop. Inside Miss Lily’s Lollies, there’s a woman working behind the counter, and one other person, a man. He’s tall and fit-looking, in black dress pants and a pressed button-up shirt and shined shoes. He’s standing over three clear display buckets and talking loudly into his phone: ‘You’re all good for candy watches and candy bracelets, but you’re down to – one, two three – four, you’ve only got four candy watches. Definitely going to need more candy watches.’ He has the tone of someone conducting important business.
2. The Erringhi Hotel in Clarence Town has a $5 burger night on Wednesdays from 4-6pm. We’re eating our burgers at 5:57 in the pub courtyard, which has a garden that drops off down a small hill. A boy, maybe five years old, parades around the courtyard with a Spider-Man action figure. He stops at the edge of the hill, looking down into the darkness like he’s ready to take the plunge. A man that is probably his dad calls across the courtyard, ‘Tim, no.’
Tim swivels his head toward his dad, then back down the slope.
‘No,’ Dad says.
‘Bogeyman?’ Tim asks.
‘Yep,’ Dad says, and takes a swig of beer. Tim sighs and dashes into crowd.
3. While we’re out for a bushwalk, A tells me about the time her dad gave her tips for safe country driving while they were on a road trip in SA. ‘The important thing is not to swerve for small animals. It can be really dangerous.’
Soon after, while her dad is driving, they see a sleepy lizard crossing the road. He swerves around it. ‘What are you doing?’ A says. ‘You just told me not to swerve like that!’
In a tone that implies A is a bit of a monster, her dad replies, ‘You don’t hit sleepy lizards.’
Being a foreigner, I didn’t know what a sleepy lizard was, and later when I asked A about this, I couldn’t remember the lizard’s adjective. Smiley lizard? Shakey lizard? Sleepy lizards, I learned, are a slow-moving variety of blue-tongue skink exclusive to South Australia, and they are amazing.
It turns out sleepy lizards are known by many names: the shingleback, the stumpy tail, the pinecone lizard and the bob-tail goanna. Their diet consists mainly of flowers. They live as long as 50 years, and in that time, they develop a social network of both friends and foes. And one more thing about sleepy lizards: they grieve.
This research comes from ‘probably the longest-running lizard survey in the southern hemisphere, if not the world‘.Australia always has new and fascinating things to teach me.
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