I had been coming to this place during the school holidays for seven years before we retired here and felt I knew it pretty well. I was confident that I knew the life that I was committing myself to and had been planning my retirement project for years. I felt I had a clear idea of how my post-retirement life would be. I can tell you, from a distance of two-and-a-half years in, that it is what I expected — and it isn’t.
My grand project was to develop this rather large house yard into a productive food garden with a scattering of a few islands of idle and gratuitous prettiness. I still have that goal in mind but I had expected that within the first year everything would be up and running (after all, I’d been practising gardening in Sydney for some years). It isn’t. I didn’t expect to have to learn to garden all over again — the environment and gardening essentials (soils, weather, environment etc.) are so different here.
I also didn’t take into account that the hard physical labour of gardening would slow me down as much as it has. After all, Peter Cundall looks good as he vigorously digs the dirt, fiddles with forks and plants potatoes, and I’m way younger than he is! The soil here is hard, compacted clay and building garden beds into it or even on top of it is physically very hard and demanding work. I didn’t anticipate that. As well, I didn’t anticipate the different gardening techniques required in this very different weather: the winters are cold (-4 degrees is the norm in mid-winter), and the summers are very hot — and getting hotter, it seems. We had three weeks this summer, day after day, of temperatures between 34–43 degrees. The summers are also getting longer, and the winters shorter.
So, although I knew what to expect from my retirement, the devil has been in the detail.
Language, too, has also thrown up some surprises. I’ve had to learn a different language here: country-farmer speak. Descriptives such as “old mate” are used commonly and, in my opinion, charmingly. “Old mate” is used to describe any anonymous person (I think it’s a masculine descriptive, though I haven’t had this confirmed). It seems to be used in the same way that “the bloke” might be used. For instance, “old mate downriver suffers when irrigators upstream take more than their share of water”. I’d never heard this expression before. I don’t know if it’s peculiar to certain parts of NSW or if it’s used in country Australia everywhere. It wasn’t around the area where I grew — a different part of country Australia. Perhaps someone can enlighten us on the etymology of this expression.
I also didn’t predict that I’d come to relish the feeling that I’ve “dropped out”. Do you remember that '70s term? In those days (the 70s) I think it meant that you’d grown your hair long and put a flower in it, moved to a commune, walked around naked most of the day and made it your mission to tell The Pigs they were not welcome (though in much more colourful language than that!). What does “dropped out” mean to me, here? Well, I don’t listen to the radio. Hard to believe, isn’t it? It started off being because we haven’t got radio reception here, but now I just love not listening to the radio — I don’t even miss dear old Radio National, though it took me awhile to come to that point. Also, I can go a week, two weeks, even more if I choose, not speaking to anyone other than the Cowboy. I don’t answer the phone unless I can’t avoid it. I try not to watch the news, and I don’t do much texting — no mobile reception here. After life in the city I think I’m radioed, texted, newsed out.
I’ve learned to make a really good batch of scones (thanks, Stephanie Alexander), and I whip up a batch every time we invite someone over for afternoon tea (that happens about once a year). I’ve been tempted to join the local branch of the Country Women’s Association, and I would if I didn’t believe that they are looking for members who have more years and more energy to offer than I have.
All of these things are a lovely way to spend a retirement, and when I think about it they are states that suit me down to the ground, but I hadn’t predicted much of the shape of the minutiae of my life here.
I think I can safely say that the transition to retirement period is over and we find that we have now changed the angle from which we view many of the things in our world. We’ve changed the way we view and interact with the natural world. Seeing animals in a documentary isn’t quite the same as living with them on a day-to-day basis. Having to shoo a big goanna out of the chook house to deter it from eating our eggs is an experience in itself, especially when I’ve heard, all my life, to be careful about goannas because if you stand still for too long they’ll think you’re a tree and run up your legs. Although the concept sounds absurd it is, in fact, plausible. The first thing a goanna does when frightened is to run to the nearest upstanding object (tree, hopefully) and climb it. The idea that a goanna might run up my leg is a frightening thought because some, head to tail, are as tall as me and they all have very long, sharp claws. Of course, this may be a country myth but nonetheless I bear it in mind when I’m around goannas.
In the meanwhile I don’t really think we’ll turn into reclusive hermits (well, the Cowboy won’t anyway), though one of the benefits of retirement is that we are much more able to make that choice.