Archer's Fields

The following chapter provides a gateway leading me to the very heart of my home,  and reveals its past: the truths that changed my perception of who I was and where I belonged.

The Archer’s Game

As sunrises on Sunday, I perch on the wide gate, gazing at the horizon all misty and lavender. Amber rays filter through branches of aged pines, gilding my face and hair. The trees stand in an L-shaped at the corner of the next field: we call it the Rabbit Paddock. Beneath the pines ragged clumps of boxthorn form a hedge accommodating several rabbit warrens. I can see two occupants bobbing in the grass, their white tails flagging every hop, and I can hear Husso’s tail drumming the kennel floor, as if he knows.

While not keen to hunt creatures for sport, even culling, rabbits lie within a grey area of my conscience, with mice, foxes and starlings: creatures dad refers to as pests. True, I help dig up their burrows and enjoy eating rabbit casserole, but taking life for food is beyond my childhood experience. I have never known such hunger as to kill, let alone butcher a wild rabbit.

Clasping my bow and an arrow, I regard the rabbits, now. Shall I hunt them or not? I haven’t imagined beyond this moment. Having held the cypress branch aloft, I could see the bow it would make, just as surely as how I knew how to craft it. Instincts guided me, not books. My hands knew what to do, which tool to use, what notches to cut, how to judge the rightness of balance and spring. The knowledge manifested itself as I needed it.

But here, with an hour before breakfast, I am unsure what to do. My instinct fails me. There is emptiness where there should be an impulse. Picking up the threads of yesterday, I slide off the gate and step forward, fitting an arrow to the bow. I draw it back. Nothing special presents as a target. I fire at the pine tree, striking it easily, and collect the arrow.

Consciously inviting a new challenge, I turn south to the open field, raise the bow, fit the arrow, and sight distant features along the shaft. Terang drapes the hill, all misty. Pines and cypresses are next; they and the boundary fence are too distant and featureless. I turn eastward, sighting boxthorn. The rabbits have gone. The hedge beckons. I aim above it, emptying my mind, pausing, and fire. The arrow sails high and falls into grass. This feels right.

I spot the shaft, buried tip-first in a clump of weed. The smells of damp earth and vegetation rise. Life is palpable, inviting me forward. Aiming for the hedge, I spot a scar on the trunk of the first pine tree. I pause, breathe, draw and fire, knowing I won’t reach the target in one go. The arrow sails over the fence, landing well short of the tree. I slip between the wires and retrieve the shaft, wiping the earth from its tip. It has flown to the right, so I aim the next shot to allow for this, above the scar on the trunk. Clipping the bark, the shaft sails passed.
Damn! I retrieve it. One easy shot will strike the trunk anywhere, but I want the target, now on the other side: the penalty for inaccuracy. With one more shot to place myself in line with the target, the final one lands in the centre of the scar.
‘Bullseye! I crow. ‘Five shots. And room for improvement!’

I wheel around to face the line of trees. The pine at the far end of the ‘L’ is a good eighty yards away. At its base, a knot of roots rise above the grass. I give myself three shots, the second taking me within a yard of the target. The next has too much power, and the arrow nicks the root before skidding a couple of yards beyond. The tip is bent now.

‘Sloppy,’ I chide, sternly. ‘Con-cen-trate.’ A fourth shot finds the mark and, as I withdraw the arrowhead, I smell resin from the carpet of pine needles underfoot.

These trees are old, gnarled and weathered. Several stumps tell of storms and lightning; branches so brittle they’ve succumbed to arctic gales. Surviving branches sparse, offering little shade or shelter. Twigs and pinecones litter the ground.

Below the boxthorn there are signs of new burrows. If I tell dad he’ll bait them promptly, if he hasn’t already. The hedge looks quite uninhabitable, its treacherous thorns and branches an absurd tangle. Boxthorn grows anywhere, even in the parched wilderness, tenacious like the early British settlers who brought it here.

I study a line of hawthorn at the next fence. There’s a strainer post visible in a gap, an obvious target, and three shots should reach it. My estimate is correct and I collect the arrow with a hum of satisfaction. I step through the fence into shade. Here the ground falls away to a drain which collects stormwater, and passes through other farms to the foot of Terang where it is flows into a canal called The Peyjaark.

While this paddock floods frequently in winter, it is dry now, a dusty stubble after recent harvesting. Along the left fence stands a young cypress hedge and beyond, a gate and cattle trough, where I will stop upon my return.

I search for another target. There’s another hawthorn hedge at the next fence. Beyond it lies the last paddock, aptly called the Bottom Paddock. There’s a fence post in a gap and I estimate four shots, secretly hoping for three. I raise the bow, draw it right back and fire my arrow hard and high. It lands more than a third of the way across the field and is difficult to find in the stubble. I take aim again, with more accuracy and less power, and retrieve the arrow a single shot from the target. My target post is a weathered strainer. I clip it easily.

Hawthorn is one European specimen dad respects. Like boxthorn, it is tough, providing food, shade and a windbreak for cattle and birds. But it lacks the invasiveness of boxthorn. In earlier days a settler planted both these hedgerows as an avenue, stretching well beyond the boundaries of our farm: from Terang to the northwest, beyond the horizon. Between the rows a pipeline was laid, gravity feeding spring water to all the farms it crosses. A remarkable achievement. Dad has told me how materials were carried by bullock dray from Melbourne and Ballarat, and implements hauled by draft horse.

To better define my game, I choose targets that I will remember. The next is a clump of boxthorn at the boundary fence. Within its tangled branches lies a fox den. A third shot buries my arrow in the brambles which graze my arm as I reach to retrieve it. I decide to use a nearby post in future games.

Across our farm, and to the west, the land rises to the rim of Lake Keilembete. The house is obscured by the cypress hedges. Gates stand at opposite corners: one to the laneway, the other providing access to the centre paddock, to the heart of the farm. I choose that gatepost, although I cannot see it clearly, yet. The first shot falls well short of my expectations. I see the bow string has stretched, and I tighten it by looping it round the stave. Now it produces a healthy twang once more.

Over my right shoulder sits Mt Noorat, its grassy slopes speckled, rusty with dry grass and bracken. A spine of pine trees bristle along the crater ridge. Even from here I see the stain of the quarry on its flank. That gaping pit supplies the shire with scoria and gravel, and a truckload was spread on our driveway recently. I smile, remembering how I fell upon it like a seagull at a picnicker’s lunch, looking for gem stones. There were several volcanic bombs, their hearts filled with olivine. I had showed mum the prize, but its meaning seemed lost on her.
‘Mmm. Where’d you find that?’ she had asked, still busy with her sewing.
‘On the driveway. Aren’t the crystals beautiful?’ I had rotated a lump of the gems for her to admire. She glanced only briefly, more intent on sewing.
‘See the dark green crystals?’ I had prompted. ‘They might be emeralds.’
‘I don’t think so, dear.’
‘Why?’ I was crestfallen.
‘I don’t think emeralds are volcanic.’ Even her tone disappointed me.
Undeterred, I had shown her a tin filled with crystals, the result of a whole day’s work.
‘And what will you going to do with those?’
‘Add them to my treasure of course.’
‘And where’s that exactly?’
‘I can’t tell you. It’s a secret!’

***

I remove my windcheater, tie it by its sleeves around my waist, and clean the arrow tip with my thumbnail. I can see it needs straightening. My second shot reaches the cattle trough, only a few yards from my target. The arrow lies in a crazed yawn of dust, framed by clumps of dry sedge. The last shot buries the arrow tip at the foot of a sturdy, red gum post.

After belly-sliding over the gate, I lean back to scan the middle paddock. A herd of Aberdeen Angus graze near the hedge: they give me a few curious glances and then return to grazing. The paddock offers two options: I can either aim for the inner gate and head for the dairy, virtually finishing the game, or choose the side fence and the paddock beyond. I decide on the latter, my target being a gate post into the Two Pines paddock, and three shots at least. Drawing closer, I refine my target: the base of the windmill tower on the other side of the hedge. After my final shot, I stir the trough for late tadpoles.

The two pines stand alone in the centre of the paddock, only a couple of shots away. Retrieving my arrow from the base of the stunted tree I aim my next shot at a stand of scotch thistles by the remnants of an old fence. While not a permanent target, they will suffice. An easy second shot falls short, leaving a third for the thistles. I aim an angry kick at the base of the nearest plant and send it sprawling. My days of spring hoeing have missed them. With their seeds dispersed now, the damage done.

Gauging the angle of the sun, I realise I am late for breakfast and must head back. While the best targets are yet to come, I don’t want to rush my first game. I sprint to the next gate, spooking steers that have ran after me. They stop short, enshrouded by dust, snorting, their eyes wide, front legs apart. A couple of beasts drop their heads briefly before pivoting round and dashing off into the herd. The others follow.

I’m puffing by the time I reach the dairy and walk the last dusty stretch. Because archery is a bit of a secret, I my gear behind a girder in the machinery shed. Elizabeth is right. I need a quiver to carry extra arrows, and an arm band. My left forearm is welted by grazes from the bow string.

The remainder of the morning is one long, frustrating delay. After breakfast there are chores to be done and mum insists we go to church and, as usual, by the time we’re ready she decides not to go.
‘You always do this, mum. Why can’t we have the roast tonight?
‘Because Sunday dinner is at noon.’
‘Says who? We never get back from church till almost one. It’s always been like that.’
‘I’m not going to argue Jo, and I’m not going to church!’
‘Then why did you start getting ready in the first place?’
Her silence is dismissive. I give up and walk to the car.

Dad lets me skip Sunday school. While the other children file out, I remain for the sermon, far more engaging than reciting bible verses, and listening to stories with a crowd of unruly kids and scone-pushing mums. Better still, after church I am allowed to drive the car home. But the day is wasted, and I decide to wait until next Saturday, where I can be sure of enough time to play the entire game in one go.

***

On Saturday I wake to the sound of running water: rain trickling along gutterings and through downpipes. Disappointed, I rise and dress quietly, padding down the hallway to the kitchen.

With the kettle humming and two malto-milks in my pocket, I reach for my raincoat and open the back door. I peer out at the drizzling dawn, feel something akin to pangs of injustice. Buttoning my coat, I pull the hood down firmly. I don’t mind rain, but loathe drizzle like this. It reminds me of someone who can’t make up their mind.

After collecting my bow and arrow, I walk down beneath the big cypress to greet Husso. His tail drums the floor of the kennel and he peers up at me, hopefully.
‘Too wet, Huss,’ I tell him with a pat. I rest my gear on a 44-gallon drum near the gate, and climb up onto the sturdy timber, pulling my raincoat beneath me. The sunrise is smeared and pink under ill-defined clouds. Overcast. Coastal showers. Light south easterly breeze. Since we live a good hour’s drive from the coast I wonder why we are so blessed with coastal showers. I suppose we need the rain. Any rain.

Sliding down, I reach back for my bow and arrow. ‘Right. Let’s play!’ I take aim. The arrow thuds against pine bark and clatters to the ground. I retrieve it and shoot my way to the tree-scar in the rabbit paddock. So far the rain hasn’t bothered me. I fire at the hedgerow, and stroll through the paddock, inhaling the sweet dampness of soaked, tired grass.

Drizzle smatters my face and the lower half of my jeans, leaving me more clammy than wet. As I brush my fringe back under the rain hood, I spot the arrow. The next shot will bring me right by the target. I draw again, but the arrow slips from my grip, making the shot a dud. I dry my thumb and finger on my jeans and permit a second shot, firing the arrow straight into the fence post. Still room for improvement… and plenty of practice. I look up at the sky. In better conditions and with deadly accuracy, I could do that in two! A third shot strikes my next target, a fence post at the hawthorn avenue.

Returning via the windmill, my game is much improved. The drizzle has cleared and the clouds are thinning. I aim at the thistle patch, and watch the arrow slip into the tumble of thorns.
‘Two shots!’ I cry triumphantly, running to retrieve the arrow. A startled rabbit leaps from my path and scuttles for safety. There’s a rounded hollow in the grass tufts, the earth still dry and warm. I wonder: had I seen it, would I have tried to shoot it? But, no. That would destroy the heart of the game.

The next target is new, a fence post, two easy shots to its base. I climb through taut wires and regard my next challenge. The paddock is bare, treed along the far boundary fence, and nothing stands out. Then I remember. There’s a bore near the boundary; a rusted pipe protruding from the ground a foot or so. It’s not marked but I have a fair idea where it lies. Aiming high I picture the bore, and let my memory guide the arrow. It’s a mighty shot, followed by another that lands in tall grass. I stride through a sea of buzzing crickets to where the arrow has landed, perpendicular and camouflaged in long grass. I make a mental note to mark the tail shaft with red paint.

The bore pipe is almost invisible and lower in the ground than I remember. I weed around it, and stomp over the grass to make my target more visible. Pacing back to my bow I have calculated about sixty feet, a challenge indeed. Fitting the arrow, I eye the target very carefully, aiming a little higher and to the left, hoping for a final shot. I take a moment to relax, imagining the arrow’s flight before I set it free.

Arriving, I discover the arrow buried at the side of the pipe. This is more than beginner’s luck: rehearsing is the secret, just like I do the sweep of the axe blade when chopping wood. While cleaning the arrow tip, I study the next field. I call this one the corner paddock. It is the largest on the farm, sharing a boundary with the main road and a neighbour’s property. There’s an L-shaped cypress hedge at the corner. Half the paddock is heavily stubbled after summer grazing of rape and turnips. Across its centre lies a deep drain, lined with old trees, some eucalypts, but mostly pines and cypresses. Many have succumbed to storms and age; their torn limbs providing our firewood. The trees that remain are lop-sided.

I have a favourite tree in this paddock, down near the bottom fence. Once a robust cypress, it has subsided, with several limbs torn from its trunk by appalling gales. One low branch provides a swing. There I close my eyes and pretending I’m at a rodeo, riding a wild steer. The branch is also a favourite for the farm’s stud bull. He uses it as a scratching post during his brief tenure, and rolls in the dust beneath it, leaving a wide depression in the ground.

My next target will be over at the hedge. I aim high, watching the arrow intently, so as not to lose it. Striding through the stubble, I am swamped by the rank odour of cabbage. With my arrow located, I pause to study the hedge. It has never been an appealing place for exploration, encircled by barbed wire. Its boundary offers less privacy and the trees are old, their branches large and dense. There is no canopy floor of soft leaves and twigs to walk upon like in the hedge near the house.

I spot a stout corner post and choose this as my target, firing a long shot. The arrow lands just outside the stubbled corner, amidst docks, thistles and cape weed. If I overshoot the next, my arrow will be difficult to retrieve and so I take my time, aiming with instinct and skill, rehearsing the shot carefully, conscious of the shaft and the post. The arrow soars across bare earth into the shade of the trees. I cannot see where it’s landed. I run the last few yards, and give a hoot of delight. My arrow is spiked jauntily into the earth at the foot of the post. Filled with jubilation, I salute an imaginary stadium crowd that cheers me on.

After cleaning the tip, I turn and aim across the paddock towards my favourite tree. As I release the arrow, I watch its flight, my arms still braced, fists clenched, encouraging it along. As it falls earthward I line up the spot with a fence post behind it and begin my malodorous walk. Here and there an uprooted turnip lies half-eaten. Now if this was a crop of peas it would be so much nicer. Prompted by this thought I reach into my pocket for a forgotten biscuit.

Locating the arrow is easy for it has landed upright, clearly visible in the ghost-land of stumps. I’m in the middle of the crop, needing two more shots to reach the tree. As I flex the bow, I notice how tender my fingers have become from all the gripping, and my forearm is welted pink. Undeterred, I let the arrow fly, smiling with satisfaction as it dives into a crowd of dried weeds surrounding my cypress.
‘Brilliant,’ I exclaim. ‘Bloody brilliant!’ Again my crowd goes wild.

I bound over the crop, but come to a screeching halt twenty yards from the target. A foot in front of me stands the electric fence, beyond it, a thin, lush strip of rape, pulsing beneath with clouds of white butterflies. I tear off a lacy, moth-eaten leaf and test the wire. A regular pulse kicks through my hand. Hopping on all fours I climb beneath it and wade into the crop. Soon I regret my haste, and emerge at the outer edge drenched to the hips. Dew is one of the many hardships a warrior must bear.

Ten yards beyond lies my tree and I know there’s a good target on the other side, where dad tidied a ragged wound with his chainsaw. I aim passed the trunk, sinking my arrow into soft earth, and I turn for an easy shot.

‘Very satisfactory, young archer.’ Normally I’d reward myself with a ride on the swinging branch, but this time I hesitate. No. It’s not part of the game. That’s for afterwards. I brush the bark affectionately and acknowledge my lesson. There’s more to the archer’s game than just fun, and it draws me on.

Each tree has a scar or mark on its trunk, and while I hit all of them within a few shots, they are not necessarily easy. The first is a lip of orange fungus on a dead branch, the next a broad piece of thick smooth bark, similar to those I prise off other pines for carving material. The third target is a bubble of amber resin still oozing from a crack on a low-hanging limb. A hollow in the next eucalypt reveals an abandoned beehive, honeycomb still sticky and soft.

The following tree has a fallen limb at its feet that resembles a distressed arm. I choose the raw stump as my target, not for any macabre reason, it’s just a strong feature. There’s a gall-stunted stem on the trunk a lanky eucalypt, and the last two trees are pines: the first target an amputee’s scar, where bark has healed over the edges, leaving only an eye. And my final target, a cypress, where hooks of bark and stunted twigs hold wads of cattle hair. The limb is well polished from use, and more visible from the far side. It costs me an extra shot but, with that done, I can turn westward, for home.

The next target is a blackwood, the only one I know of on the farm. Its bare trunk offers no branches upon which to climb or perch above. Yet it is an imposing tree, the bark creased and rough, the leaves leathery. There’s a grassy mound at its feet, with blocks of hewn stone and bricks protruding from the turf. I’ve already asked dad about these.

‘Your granny built a pigsty there years ago.’ He had seemed irritated by the memory of it. ‘That mound of stones is all that’s left. Not a very successful project.’ Almost uncomfortably he adds, ‘she shouldn’t have built it there. Grandad told her not to. It was wrong.’
‘What do you mean ‘wrong’?’ I had asked.
‘That tree marks a sacred place, sacred to local aborigines.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘This whole farm, miles around. All this district once belonged to aboriginal people. Settlers drove them off. Every last one.’
‘You mean our farm is aboriginal land?’
‘Well, not any more, but it was, and all of Lake Keilembete, Terang, Mortlake and Camperdown. The lot.’
‘How do you know all this?’ I was stunned. No one had even alluded to it before.
‘Grandad told me.’

I was genuinely shocked. ‘Where did they go when they were chased away?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he’d admitted. ‘I think they’re the ones whose descendants live in Framlingham Reserve.’
‘Did grandad chase them off?’
‘Lord, no!’ Dad was horrified at the suggestion. ‘Not him! They were long gone by then! But I still find their stones when I plough.’
‘Stones? What stones?’
‘Like the one we use as a doorstop in the workshop. That’s a grinding stone women used to make flour. And there’s a stone axe-blade knocking around somewhere.’
While appalled at this, I wanted to know more. ‘So how is that tree a sacred place?’
‘I’m not sure, dear, but I think one of the early settlers over Mortlake way was yarning to grandad and must have mentioned it. Mt Noorat’s a sacred place, too.’

Now, as I stand by this very tree, I am genuinely moved by its presence and history. Yet I can never imagine its true significance. In fact, every step of the game has crossed paths with history and culture well beyond my understanding and the experience leaves a feeling like an old wound, unhealed due to ignorance. The blackwood represents a sad, empty place that needs to be filled, but I don’t know how or where to start.

I turn towards the dairy, realising what the game is about. It has threaded me through the land itself, through its life and its memory. And each game I play in the future will scribe a new circle, a new face of the same soul, until I understand what these ancient ones have left for me here.

My last target is a gatepost near the stockyards. It seems an anti-climax after the heady last stage. The arrow bounces, clattering on manure-smeared cement, and slides across the finish line. I pick it up, acknowledging the end of the game, released from its grip and power. The drab shed walls, the dust and dead grass are hardly a glorious banner. I have completed a timeless journey, far exceeding the few miles I’ve walked. Here is a new love for my home in a heart that seems much older than my body. I know I have not been alone on this journey, anymore than I have through my life in this place. Whoever guides me, ancestor, spirit or those of the great Dreaming, it must have been they who have walked beside me, theirs the voices I have heard and trusted. And their truth is irrefutable, absolute, just like the circle I have completed.

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