RegularRandom: 5 minutes with dogs and sunset


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It’s been a long time, probably two years, since I’ve seen my brother, although of course we’ve had contact. Mind you, it’s often because he’s accidentally pocket-dialled me! But here I am at last, at his coastal retreat on the shores of Burrill Lake, meeting Riley and Bundy for the first time: kelpies are a change from the usual wolfhounds.

We watch evening fall from deck and jetty, in the distance the tip of Pigeonhouse named by Captain Cook as he sailed up the coast of so-called terra nullius.  The Aboriginal name is Didthul (breast) or Didhol (big mountain).

Once upon a time long ago I walked to its summit with my teenagers, up giant stairs and through waist-high heathland. I didn’t brave the ladders to the very top. I found a rocky perch and played “Down in the valley” on my recorder, while they cavorted dangerously above me.

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In the morning, the light is of course entirely different.



This post is in response to DesleyJane’s weekly challenge. She asks us to photograph something, changing the light. I let the evening do that for me, and I obviously broke the rigid 5minutesnomore rule: I can’t pretend I didn’t. This week she features a charming cat and a blue flowers.

Getting ready to dig at Pella


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“There are four rules that can’t be broken” says Dr Stephen Bourke, briefing volunteers (including me) for the 2001 season of the Sydney University dig at Pella in Jordan.  I’m uncharacteristically willing to hand over $2000 – and my unskilled labour – in exchange for the excitement, boredom and hard work involved in peeling back the layers of an archaeological site.

“Don’t speak to the trench supervisor for half an hour after work starts,” he continues.  “If it’s clean, khaki, or flies a flag don’t photograph it.  No hairdryers: use one and you’ll put out the lights of the whole village. Most importantly, Abu Sami rules the kitchen. Oh, and by the way, don’t worry about the political situation. You’ll hear gunfire across the river and Israeli bombers screeching overhead, but you’ll be perfectly safe.”


People have lived in Pella without a break for 8000 years. Traces of this history are everywhere. Centuries reel by. Neolithic farmers grow crops, care for animals and build houses. Bronze Age workers construct a vast temple-fortress. Traders offer inlaid ivory boxes, imported pottery, alabaster perfume bottles, objects overlaid with gold. Egyptians are eager to buy timber from the forests to make chariot spokes. The city becomes part of the Decapolis, on the frontier of the Roman Empire. Under Byzantine rule businesses do a roaring trade, churches are built, the population swells. Then plague, the silting of the wadi, and an Ottoman victory that puts it in Muslim hands: it becomes a place to stop on the route to Mecca. The Ottomans lose interest in it, except as a source of taxes, and earthquakes wreak havoc. After World War 1 it becomes part of the Kingdom of Jordan. It is bombarded by the Israelis in the Six Days War. In 1979, Sydney University joins teams already excavating there, and in 2001 I volunteer for two weeks as more work is done uncovering the temple-fortress.


Over the years, the Sydney University team has unearthed Neolithic housing (ca. 6000 BCE); Chalcolithic storage complexes (ca. 4200 BCE); Early Bronze Age stone defensive platforms (ca. 3200 BCE); massive Middle Bronze Age mud-brick city walls (ca. 1800 BCE); Middle and Late Bronze Age temples and residences (ca. 1800-1200 BCE); clay tablets in a Late Bronze Age Egyptian Governors’ Residence (ca. 1350 BCE); large areas of a Hellenistic city destroyed by war in 80 BCE; the theatre, baths and fountain-house of the Roman Imperial city (ca. 150 CE); three Byzantine churches and a Bishop’s palace (ca. 550 CE); an Umayyad Islamic city destroyed by an earthquake (ca. 750 CE); an Abbasid caravanserai (ca. 950 CE); and a Mameluke mosque and administrative compound (ca. 1350 CE)

Some of the significant finds so far: column drums, a 10th century BC door; 5 million seeds in a storeroom; a life-sized basalt head; cylinder seals; gold hoop earrings; lapis lazuli; Mycenaean ceramics; tiny faience tiles; early basalt vessels; pottery pomegranates; a lion libation pourer; the earliest Aramaic inscription yet found; seven cult stands; and a cow box for burning incense.

This season the plan is to dig the temple “madly” in an attempt to find out how it was built.


Two months after the briefing, it’s pick up time in Amman. The driver of the bus taking us to Pella comes in and introduces himself cheerfully. “We’ll be out of here shortly” he says. “It’ll take a few minutes to check the undercarriage for bombs and then you can start loading your bags.”


Map showing Pella


A view over Pella



Pella did site map from Wikipedia

If you want to know more about Pella and Sydney University’s involvement:.

Detailed history of Pella from Wikipedia

A brief history of the site, written by Ben Churcher who has been involved with the excavations for many years and is currently the field director at Pella

Conversation with a Pella archaeologist. The Pella part of this interview begins at about 9.58

Conversation with Dr Stephen Bourke, dig director in 2001 and for many years before and after

Daily life on the dig

A photo album of the dig 2011

Wikimedia commons gallery



This is background to the next series of Postcards from the past.

Eurobodalla beaches: 1080



1080 is a poison, banned in many countries but still used in Australia in an attempt to eradicate foxes, rabbits and wild dogs. Edward Hoagland calls it “a drastic potion”. How come it is also the name of a beach in the Eurobodalla National Park, and a very beautiful beach at that? When we first moved to this part of the world, surfies J knew kept talking about this great beach called 1080. It was one of those nameless beaches around here that surfies identified using the name of the poison on warning signs. The name stuck.

We drive through bushland from Mystery Bay, the sign for 1080 invisible from the road, a familiar habit of National Parks and Wildlife NSW. The bushland opens out into a clearing on the headland, a scattering of picnic tables and short tracks leading to the edge of the cliff. There are long views south to Mumbulla Mountain and an emphatic sea empty of surfers. A wooden staircase leads down to the beach, and to the rocks that are of course the focus of our interest.

As with most of our weekend beaches we’re in sole possession as we move amongst the rocks, expecting to see something similar to rocks we’ve seen before. Not so. How to characterise these rocks? 

There are rocks in conjoined piles crowned by grass and sky; rocks displaying panels, parallel and differentiated in shades of brown and pumpkin and grey; and rocks sporting a blue line meandering past minute shelves where sand has settled.

There are clean-edged black basalt rocks stretching out into the turmoil of surf. They’re johnny-come-latelies on this coast, only 99 million years old and related in origin to the rocks of nearby Gulaga Mountain and the offshore island, Baranguba.

I’m delighted to spot a geological feature I recognise, a substantial dyke intruding into 470 million year old sandstone, if I’m to believe the results of a search. 

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this rocky profusion are the wavy lines, unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Unfamiliar too are the frilled vertical layers, from some angles looking like old-fashioned bonnets.

I wander round contentedly as the tide begins to drop, relishing textures and patterns and colours; tiny pebbly coves gentled by crystomint wavelets; rocks vivid with orange lichen; and the view back to Mumbulla Mountain. A lowering sky does not, sadly, deliver on what looks like a promise of rain.

RegularRandom: 5 minutes with a magnolia

As soon as I saw the magnolia at Blue Earth, my local cafe, I knew I was going to 5-minute it. It’s pink for a start, entirely appropriate for DJ whose life is styled in pink and whose brainchild “5 minutes with a …” is.






To see a mistress at work with flowers, 5 minutes and a camera, have a look at DesleyJane’s post featuring sunflowers.



Mahomet and the golden camera


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This is a piece I imagined based on my encounter with the family in Serjilla that I mentioned in my last Postcard from the past. I’m not much good at writing fiction, but I really enjoy taking a kernel of reality and playing with it. That’s what I’ve done here. It was written a while back in the days when I was semi-prolific. Next week, I’m having a writing retreat at Potato Point with a writing friend, and I’m hoping concentrated time and the presence of a critiquer will inspire a few changes of style and a flurry of writing. I’m also posting it as I procrastinate over a background piece for my time at Pella in Jordan.

Mahomet peered around the ruined stone wall. There she was again, an old woman, a foreigner, on her own. She was shabbily dressed. She didn’t look like most of the tourists who visited his home. They usually came in crowds on a bus and they didn’t stay long. She came in a battered yellow taxi and she’d been here wandering around for ages, ever since he came up after dinner to look at the motor bike the archaeologists always left parked near where they were digging.

She looked poor – for a tourist – but in her hand was a golden camera. It gleamed in the cold Dead City sun, against the green grass, the blue sky and the stone of the ruins. She had taken many photos, of strange things sometimes. She seemed to be photographing blades of grass and single stones. She seemed to like taking photos through windows or doors.

Mahomet was good at watching. It was one of the things he really liked doing, when he could get away from his younger brothers and sisters and his mother who always seemed to want him to do something. Sometimes he watched ants and scorpions, but they belonged here. What he really liked doing was watching strangers and trying to figure them out. Why were they here? What was their life like at home? How did they get the money they always seemed to have lots of?

Sometimes he talked to them. He didn’t know much English or French or German, but he was proud that he knew more than they knew Arabic. Suddenly he decided he would talk to the old woman with the golden camera.

She was staring at one of the old roofless buildings. He said “Madam …” and she jumped and looked startled.

“Oh. Hello.” she said in a flat voice.

“You want me to show you places?” he asked.

“How much?”

 It was his turn to look startled.

 “For free. No money.”

He moved off towards one of the buildings he knew she would like. It had plenty of window and door holes and enough grass to keep her happy forever. They didn’t talk much. She held the golden camera and used it often, as they rambled away from the centre of the buildings. She was happy to follow him. Sometimes he asked questions about the camera.

 “Why do you take so many photos?” “What do you do with them all?” and finally “Why is your camera golden?’

 She looked surprised again.

 “Golden? I suppose it is golden. It was just the one I bought, because it did the things I wanted to do. “

 “How strange foreigners are,” he thought. “She has a golden camera and she didn’t even know it.”

As they approached the last building he planned to show her he heard the sound of voices. Oh no. He recognized them. His mother and Saleh and Ahmed and all of them. And there they were coming up the hill their heads first and then the rest of them. His mother called him

“Mahomet. What are you doing? Are you annoying the lady?”

Suddenly he saw his opportunity. Tourists like having photos taken with the locals. His family were locals and there was even a baby. Babies seemed to be especially attractive. He couldn’t figure out why. This might be his chance to hold the golden camera and even use it. He’d never used a camera, never even held one.

 “Photo madam? You like photo with my family? I will take it.” He held his breath.

 “I’d love a photo” said the old lady. She handed him the camera, putting the strap around his neck.

“You look through here,” she said. “And when you can see the picture you want to take, you press this button.”

He peered through the viewfinder. There was his family. The baby’s nappy was sagging and his mother was squinting in the sun. His sisters preened and looked important and his brother, he knew, was about to whinge: “I want a turn to. Give me a turn.” Behind them was the familiar landscape, strangely carved off and boxed by the little viewing hole.

He pressed the button, holding the golden camera steady. And then he pressed it again, and again and again till there were ten photos of his family locked up inside. What a pity he would never see them, and how much he wanted a camera of his own.

The lady took back the camera and told him to stand with his family and she took two more photos. Then she said something astonishing: “Do you want to see?” They all crowded round and he noticed a tiny screen. In the sun you could see nothing, but in the shade there they were, caught on this sunny day with a chill in the air.

The lady said thank you and went back to her yellow taxi. Mahomet no longer wanted to buy a motor bike more than anything else in the world. He wanted a golden camera to catch all the things he saw and keep them forever.

Couplings: a photo essay 



Australia is in the middle of a totally ridiculous non-compulsory, non-binding plebiscite (or is it a survey?) which asks the question “Should the law be changed to allow same sex couples to marry?” And costs $AUD170 million. All to rescue timid parliamentarians from doing their job, which is to legislate in the spirit of Ireland and the 21st century.

I suspect this is why I use my non-geological beach walks to meditate on couples, using shells and occasional other findings to prompt my thinking. Shells have been paired at the whim of the sea, not unlike the nature of most pairings, brought about in strange configurations by the accident of proximity.

Take these two, for example. Totally different. You’d never expect them to see anything in each other.

For these two I see trouble ahead. They are very different from each other, both broken, marked by previous experience.

There could well be a different kind of trouble for these couplings. Look how they curl around and nestle up to each other. It’s pretty dangerous to seek completion in something else. And look how abrasion’s beginning already – grains of sand settling between them ready to niggle and damage.

Alarm bells ring here. See how one of them dominates. I foresee an overpowering matched to a diminishing.

Look around you at any cafe and you’ll see this couple, sitting silent, each in their own isolated niche.

Some couplings manage a nice balance of function and pleasure.

And some, like this man with his surfboard, offer pure unadulterated, undemanding delight.

Then there are the couples wrapped up in each other and excluding the rest of the world. These two are foraging companionably together, but when a third joins them they raise their wings and squawk it away.

A gutted crab and beached starfish are a final reminder that human pairings all end in separate couplings with death.

Despite all these negatives and nigglings, I hope my fellow Australians shape up and vote resoundingly “YES”, showing good sense that our politicians and many commentators and interest groups lack. No doubt same sex marriage will encounter the same mix of agony and ecstasy that seems to be inherent in most relationships, but that’s no reason for making it impossible.

RegularRandom: 5 minutes with another rusty vehicle


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Once you’ve seen one, you see them everywhere, even when your focus is on the delicacy of orchids. Rusty vehicles, that is. This one is on the site of the old Bodalla tip, now part of Eurobodalla National Park, and its companions are a pair of magpies, warbling at midday as they avoid my camera. The bits of the vehicle are scattered, and undoubtedly there are more buried in the worryingly desiccated grass.

This is my contribution to DesleyJane’s RegularRandom. Rush over to her blog now for a wonderful gallery of dog portraits to counter my ongoing penchant for rust.

Postcards from the past: the Dead Cities, Syria




January, 2001

We leave Afamia and head first through pleasant country towns, and then back into rocky country where the roads are fenced with stone walls and groves of olive trees are subtle against furrowed red soil. The Dead Cities are a mystery: no one is quite sure why they died, although there are certainly theories. I visit Serjilla, a feast of ruined buildings, tumbled grey stone, mossy rocks, vivid green grass and lacey stone fences. No sign at all of wild dogs slavering rabies, contrary to warnings. I ramble around enjoying sun, silence and solitude. There are not many people, just a group of archaeologists and then, suddenly, cresting a rise, one by one, a family, including a baby in a very damp nappy. The son, an adolescent male, orchestrates a photo session, full of self-confidence and cheek. He’s fascinated by my gold camera and manages to coax my carefully hoarded small coins into his possession.

The day isn’t over yet. We stomp around the mud of an olive grove near a tomb with a high-pitched roof, and visit a ruined church at Al Bara. As we drive back to Hama, the shafts of sunset illuminate the shrinking mountains. I give Abu Farouz £200 Syrian as a thank you and rush off to a juice stand, whose proprietor either wants to know how many children I have, or to give me babies.

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For background and current history see

Washing eggs with Kandinsky and Dickens


I spent my childhood [or so it seemed to me] sitting in the shed at the end of the incubator room. To get into it I had to walk up rickety wooden steps, five of them, guarded by a savage cactus, waiting to insert its needle- sharp spines into any bit of flesh that forgot to sidle as I climbed.

My daily job – every day, all through my childhood, even when I had three sisters quite capable of going on a roster – waited for me in that shed. I had to wash hundreds of eggs every day. That was my contribution to Dad’s poultry farm.

When I complained, Mum said: “Your sisters have their own jobs, Marjie. Cleaning the eggs is yours.”

And so it was for 10 years, from the time I was 5 until I turned 15.

How I hated everything about it. The room was thick with dust: dusty string in hanks; dusty buckets; dusty light bulbs; dusty shelves; dusty tools. The stool I had to sit on was dusty. The floor was thick with dust. The windows were streaked with dust. The only thing that made the dust bearable was the sight of the eggs. Beside their ovaloid grime and the demands they made on me, the dust seemed to gleam and glisten, maybe even scintillate. Because the eggs had been painted, as if by some demented artist, with the hardened squish of chicken shit and a collage of feathers. I had to pick them up with a hand I thought was better suited to drawing room pursuits (I was a child of books – any books I could get my hand on) and clean the embellishments off without breaking the egg. My impulse was to hurl the eggs against the dusty walls.

My primary school sewing teacher liked to use the sewing lesson to expand our minds. She’d learnt singing in Berlin for a while when she was younger and told us a bit about abstract art. I imagined the wall as a canvas waiting for someone like Kandinsky – I think that was the name she said. I’d hurl the eggs at the wall and then I’d create slashing, splashing dramatic whiplash lines with some of the old tools lying around to express my exploding emotions – my sense of infinite boredom, infinite injustice, infinite rage. They’d all be encrypted in the yellow yolk dribbling down every vertical surface through the dust, over the string. Yellow was the right colour. It’s aggressive, blaring, trumpeting, and well suited to my daily feeling of fury.

The teacher who gave me ideas about abstract art also gave me Dickens. She used to read to us as we stitched and embroidered. He was my companion through the endless afternoons of egg washing.

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station shall be held by anybody else …”
This is the beginning of David Copperfield. My chances of being the hero of my own life seemed slim, but I could dream as I read his story, propped on the other side of the box of enemy eggs. As I read, the eggs ceased to exist. When David was incarcerated in the counting house, I knew how he felt. Money. Eggs. We both had to work with stuff that was worthless to us, enslaved against our will.
I cleaned the eggs, of course I did; I was Marjie the Good. I cleaned them well enough not to be called to task. I broke few, except occasionally in the grip of a cliffhanger. But while I was cleaning them I was elsewhere, in the world of “Bleak House”, “Dombey and Son”; “A Tale of Two Cities”; “The Old Curiosity Shop”; “Pickwick Papers”.

Mum was sympathetic. She always encouraged us to read. When she went to Town, she always came back with cheap classics. Dad couldn’t understand anyone getting pleasure from reading. “Tarka the Otter” was the first and last long book he tackled. Bored witless by it, he could never see why people would want to read.

“Marjie, you’re supposed to be washing the eggs,” he’d say. “You can’t do a proper job unless you concentrate.”

But after a while he gave up. I did a good enough job, and there was no point giving me the opportunity to perform the I hate washing eggs rant.

I’m sick of eggs. Eggs everywhere. Boxes of eggs dripping with feathers and shit. Eggs packed into my mind, where they displace things I really want to think about. Eggs on the edge of my eyeline dancing jeeringly in their smooth featureless shells. Eggs invading my dreams, nudging each other with their bland uninspired surfaces. Eggs delighting in sticking feathers to my fingers. Eggs shaping my hands, that would rather hold a needle and thread, a pen, a paintbrush. Implacable, daily eggs.

Implacable daily eggs – for ten years.

Then, when I was fifteen, I left school and started work in the tax office. It became Minnie’s job to wash the eggs. I was free.


This is a story from my mother’s childhood, told in her voice. It’s cobbled together out of vague memories of her stories; my own experiences at my grandfather’s place; and liberal doses of imagination. The hard detail? A teacher who read to pupils while they sewed. A mother who brought books rather than sweets home from her rare trips to Town [Sydney]. A father who indeed developed a hatred of reading, thanks to Tarka the Otter. And of course the egg-washing chore.

I spent a bit of time tracking down the passage from the beginning of “Bleak House” that I modelled the egg rant on; and finding information about abstract art that led me to Kandinsky A lot of the language about the yolked walls is stolen pretty well directly from Kandinsky’s writings and manifesto, although the imagined actions sound more like Jackson Pollock. In other reading I came across a young woman who did indeed spend time in Berlin, and as a primary school teacher in Australia, but not at my mother’s school.

It was written in 2010 when I belonged to an online group who settled down with a glass of wine on Sunday afternoon to paint (them) and write (me). One suggestion was to change to third person, but I couldn’t make that work for me.


RegularRandom: 5 minutes with a modern midden



En route to find orchids, I stumbled across the site of a recent oyster feast just off the road into my village. I photographed it once in the early morning light, and returned at midday when Sue prompted me to think about light. So let’s say I broke up my 5 minutes into 3+2, although to be honest it was probably longer. Then I submitted most of the images to Snapseed Structure until I got a satisfactory opalescent effect.

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This is my contribution to DesleyJane’s RegularRandom, which has become addictive. This week she features closed tulips in all their glory: a nice counter to my opened oysters!