2015

I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I am also using it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone.
Suggestions welcome!


Monday, March 30, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Sad Monday

Oh dear. Woke to the news that St James Catholic church in Brighton has been destroyed by a huge fire, so large it was visible from the West Gate Bridge. The church was build in 1891. 

How does stone burn? All its beautiful wooden interiors....



The Victorian Heritage site says the nave was built in 1891 to the design of architect Edgar J Henderson; the transepts and chancel in 1924, designed by Schreiber and Jorgensen.

 The historical St James Church, in Brighton, fully ablaze.

ABC reporter on radio now says the "beautiful old church" still looks to be standing, but the roof has collapsed and there are sounds of large crashes. It's a huge fire, with many trucks and cranes. Awful.

Update: Apparently this church was the site of lots of complaints about sexual abuse of children. As Jon Faine said on 774 radio this morning, 'it's a church that has given much pain'.  Apparently some folk are glad the church has gone...  Sadder and sadder.

2nd Update: And here is Rachel Griffiths on why so many people feel "elated" the church has gone: the priest turned her mother away after her father left them, and so she feels her brothers were saved the predations of the priests. The community dispersed after the abuses became known.
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-30/haunted-house-on-hill-rachel-griffiths-describes-church-abuse/6357960

And here's an astonishing photo from The Age reader Garry Furlong: weird effect of yellow flames lighting up windows designed to bring light inside.



Thursday, March 26, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Measuring Time at Tower Hill

When I visited the Melbourne Museum a few weeks ago, I went to the bookstore and saw an enormous book for over $200 on Victorian geology. I thought about it briefly, but frankly, I was a bit daunted by it. I ended up buying just a small booklet called Volcanoes in Victoria. Easy to understand and read for the non-specialist, but the main thing I could remember was this factoid I have just found again on p.13.
Who first saw the volcanoes?
Some of the youngest eruptions on the Western District plains must have been seen by Aboriginal people. Early historians reported that Aboriginal people told stories of rocks and fire coming from some mountains. Some stone tools have been found buried in layers of volcanic ash near Warrnambool. 
Now that's what I call a memorable fact, especially given our common understanding of Australia as an ancient continent, formed beyond most human memory. Of course I have more questions: which historians? which stories? So there's some more work for me to do here too. (I love this form of research: I use the blog to defer work I'll plan to do later...) There is a picture (too small to reproduce well here) of a stone axe (14 by 12cm) found buried under volcanic ash from the Tower Hill volcano (near Warrnambool) with a Museum of Victoria catalogue number (X72234), though I couldn't find it online to make a good link. But this stone object, lying under ash for thousands of years, is the kind of object that comes to find its own special place in the brain, too.

When did all this happen? The oldest recognisable volcanoes are about 6 or 7 million years old. By contrast, one of the youngest is Mt Napier, near Hamilton, formed around 30,000 years ago. Tower Hill was probably active around 25,000 years ago: http://www.hamiltonvictoria.com.au/Main.asp?_=Volcanic%20Plain

I like to think I have a reason to go back and visit Tower Hill. I've visited on a number of occasions, most recently on a medievalists' road trip, when as we were leaving at dusk, a koala obligingly took her baby for a walk across the car park. Now that was a good day. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Bird Bath Time

Not far from my new building is a long shallow pool. Water sits about two or three centimetres above rows of small bluestone squares. The pool is newish, and answers to the longer, deeper, rectangular pool that edges the south lawns and leads down to the Medley Building.

This pool extends from the new Asia Centre building down towards a peculiar knot of buildings, annexes, odd pathways and tight corners: one of those parts of the campus where it's easy to get lost and where there is no direct path from anywhere to anywhere else. The pool has two cafes, one at either end, and is also not far from two others. There are four or five places to buy coffee in this corner of the campus alone...

I was thinking I would take careful photos of this bluestone pool at one time but tonight as I was leaving (it was nearly 7.00 pm on what must surely be one of the last days of daylight saving), I saw how the birds had moved in. There were still a few people about, but it was much quieter than normal, and I took this video of a crow having a wonderful bath.




After I stopped filming, I saw a thrush down at the other end, where the water splashes into another square of stones, and also a pigeon with a funny moptop. And then, as if answering yesterday's post about things that land on bluestone, this perfectly fresh white feather, just landed on the water. Did it come from the crow? from its secret underfeathers? or was it a trace of Phebus's crow in Chaucer's Manciple's Tale, just transformed from white to black?



In any case, a moment of exuberance, then stillness, and then dusk, as the campus settled from the frenetic pace of first semester, into the quiet of evening, and as the birds returned to the shallow, still waters.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Gleditsia Triacanthos

Perhaps there will be a chapter in my bluestone book that might be a little photo-essay about all the things that fall on or sit on top of bluestone: mostly plants, leaves, flowers, blossoms, but also sand, gravel, rubbish and sometimes rain and hail.

I took this photo today, walking home a different way. (I also fantasise about whether it would be possible to walk to work just walking on bluestone laneways.)

They are seed pods of gleditsia triacanthos. In autumn, lines of these trees light up the streets around here with luminous yellow leaves. It's a North American tree, introduced into Australia in the middle of the nineteenth century. The trees produce these long pods in the first few years of their lives. They are supposed to fall into water, but here they have fallen into a bluestone laneway, garnishes with yellow fragments. The asymmetry of nature and this lavish effusion of seed pods like giant caterpillars onto the beloved geometry of stones

Monday, March 23, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Three Churches

Last week,  we went to my parents' new church. They moved from Grovedale to Northcote a year ago, and soon found a ready welcome at this church. It is a composite. There was originally a bluestone church, but when this became too small, a brick one was built next door, without knocking over the bluestone one. Then, as these things happen, the congregation diminished, while another church half a suburb away was growing in numbers, but without having a suitable building. So one Palm Sunday in  2005, the congregation from the smaller building literally walked together into this brick church and the two congregations merged. It's a very active community.




We went to a special service to celebrate the 60th year of my father's ordination as a minister. The service was one of thanksgiving and celebration. People spoke briefly and well. My father spoke a little about leaving school very young to go and work on the farm with his father and brothers, but then being accepted into ministry training, and then going back to finish high school at evening college, and then going to university. But mostly he spoke about my mother (who is facing some long term health difficulties now). Here he is, more or less I think at the age he and my mother met, when she was doing her deaconess training.


And here he is, making his lovely acceptance speech. 

It was followed by what can only be described as a magnificent afternoon tea. To describe all the food would be impossible, but every delicious thing you would expect at a church tea was there. I was particularly impressed by real hot tea and plunger coffee, and then the way the committee members would subtly rationalise the groaning tables as people emptied the plates and started to leave. So first there were two large rectangular tables, and then there was one in the middle of the room, and then there was but a square table; and all the plates were magically kept looking full and fresh. This is just the very last little tableful...

So I have veered a little from bluestone. But what struck me so deeply, on this important day for him, was my father being so attentive to my mother, and remembering my bluestone project, and reminding me to get out and take photographs.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Penguins!!!

Fiona sent me this video. As she says, it's a bit cheesy, but I don't care because.... little penguins!

Years ago I did some kind of word cloud search on this blog and "little" was one of the words I used most often. It's not a word I feel I'm going to use a lot to describe bluestone, but here I am using it technically to name Eudalyptor minor, or the "fairy penguin".

When tourists visit Melbourne, they sometimes go on a long busride to Philip Island to see the penguins come ashore at dusk from their day's fishing. But you can also take a stroll down St Kilda Pier. In this video you can see volunteer guides protecting the penguins, so it looks as if they are being well guarded. Years ago I took Joel there, when he was about three or four. We would have been heading out to the kiosk at the end of the pier for hot chips or icecream, but we also walked out along the breakwater, where there were quite a few men fishing. One of them beckoned us down and we peered in among the rocks and saw a young penguin waiting in its nest for its parents to come home.

The breakwater is made of enormous bluestone boulders. It seems to have been built in the 1950s, for the 1956 Olympic Games. The Earthcare St Kilda website says this:
Although not constructed with Little Penguins in mind, the volcanic rocks used to construct the breakwater proved to be ideal burrows for Little Penguins:
  • The thermal properties of the rocks keep the penguins relatively warm in winter and cool in summer, and
  • The gaps between the rocks allow penguins, their eggs and their chick to remain well hidden from seagulls and other potential predators.
And here they are!  Click to watch full screen.

St Kilda - Penguins from sylvain grolleau on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Teresa's house

I walked home a slightly different way last night (seeking to avoid the St Patrick's Day crowds outside the Dan O'Connell) and found myself face to face with this vision: a free-standing, double-fronted bluestone house with an extraordinary addition above its white pillars.



I was taking a few photos when a woman came out to say hello and when I said I was collecting photographs of bluestone she instantly invited me in to see the rest of her house. Teresa has lived here for over thirty years and put the bluestone up 28 years ago. She told me they said it would last for thirty years, and so it has: there was not a hint of movement or cracking anywhere on the facade, even though it looks rather top heavy. It cost $3000.

I wish I had felt bolder to take more photos inside. The front rooms were bedrooms painted bright shades of aquas and blues, and had big beds with shiny satin covers and dolls and scatter cushions. There was a living room with a wall unit full of photographs: Teresa has four daughters and three sons and something like seventeen grandchildren and seven "grand-grand children". She was watching the news and eating a salad of watermelon and grapes. She insisted on showing me her whole house while apologising for the mess (a cupboard door was open and a towel was sitting on a chair). The whole house was absolutely spotless, including the spare bedroom with an enormous white unicorn (or maybe it was a pony) on it for the grandchildren.

"I go to church in the morning and I clean in the afternoon -- I'm Catholic," she said, almost apologetically. She also gardens, and was apologising, as I took her photograph, that she was wearing her gardening clothes. The house had a wide central corridor which is now a spotless indoor garden with skylights.

The plants were perfect: shiny, flourishing. Teresa said the house had originally been "for the horses". Her English was very very good. Outside most of the garden was spotless white concrete with a hills hoist sprouting like a tree in the middle, but there were garden beds along one side, and a covered barbeque area on the other side where the family would gather for Christmas.

I was blown away by her graciousness. She offered me a drink but I said I had to get home, which wasn't strictly true. I was less gracious in receiving than she was in offering. But such a vision this encounter opened up for me of the lives in the city.






Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: multidisciplinarity and street art

Yesterday was just one of those great days in an academic life. I read a chapter of a colleague's book manuscript and delighted at the flourishing of her prose style and the maturation of her critical voice. I revised a press release for CHE on this bluestone project (and expect to be bombarded, I tell you, with requests for interviews..... Any minute now....). I chatted with another colleague about a possible collaboration between our Centre for the History of Emotions and a local gallery. I had a performance appraisal meeting with another colleague and marvelled at the amount of work she has done in the art community. I had a delicious hot okonomiyake under the gorgeous enormous plane tree in the courtyard of the old graduate school, and I heard a terrific paper in the evening about plague regulations and community in seventeenth-century Scotland. I also read part of a book on medieval art and the representation of faces. I rode my bike to work and back without feeling too nervous; and I watched 4 Corners while my son cooked dinner for three friends.

But the real bluestone highlight was coffee this morning with Chris and Joe (keeping my usual first-name only policy here). Joe's out here from the US working on street art with the wonderful Alison, and Chris is both a lecturer in chemical engineering here and co-teaching a second year breadth subject on Street Art.

Here they are both are:

We met near the hoarding outside Arts West (where CHE lived till last November); and where there is a cunning piece of street art advertising the subject. We had a good discussion about the ethics and ironies of using street art to "advertise" anything in the corporatised university -- and whether the billboard needed the subject code.



Chris and I enjoyed explaining the mysteries of Melbourne's bluestone to Joe. Chris was particularly interesting on the question of Melbourne's bluestone identity, reminding me that the city's famous laneways were necessary in the absence of an underground sewage system. The laneways were used for ease of access for the collectors of 'nightsoil', so the intersecting cobbled lanes that provide Melbourne's distinctive secondary network are a powerful side-product, and a reminder, of human waste. Chris also thought —and I'm hoping he'll read this and correct me if I'm misinterpreting him — that the attraction of the laneways was the vista they provided on a changing city. From the lanes it's somehow easier to observe the changing uses of buildings, and the changing buildings themselves. 

Somewhere the National Trust describes the effect of bluestone cobbled laneways as "fine-grained". I rather like that: in the midst of higher and grander buildings, there is something human-scaled about these bluestone pitches: cut by hand, and worn by foot and hoof and wheel.

We also discussed the contested site on the corner of Nicholson and Princes St (more on that soon). I wondered how street artists might feel about bluestone as a painting surface: whether they might ignore it, or respect it, or avoid it. Unsurprisingly the answer was that it was difficult to paint on, because it is usually cut so unevenly.

One of the loveliest things about our meeting, though, was the realisation that Chris and I were both working in fields far from our first beginning. He's a chemical engineer; I'm a medieval literature scholar. And yet here we were in an Australian university setting comfortably talking about street art and urban history. Nothing not to like about that!

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Guest Post: the mystery of the stolen bluestone

Bronwyn popped into my office the other day and told me her fabulous bluestone story. In my hunger for written discourse, I asked her to write it up for me. I'm wondering if I might be able to collect enough of these to have them scattered through the book in little text boxes: anecdotes, impressions, memories. Do you have a story or encounter with bluestone you'd like to share with the world?

Bronwyn's story is a wonderful story of family and the domestic space...

Growing up, one of my first encounters with bluestone was an event that has been retold so many times that it is part of my family’s folklore. It is the story of the night my younger brother was born. 
On this rather eventful evening, my mother was hanging washing out in our backyard when she heard what sounded like a truck pull up on the road outside the house. My dad had taken my little sister to the local doctor’s surgery, and as the family home was on a property just outside of Sunbury, then a semi-rural area north-west of Melbourne, trees lining the driveway meant that we could not see the road from the house. When my dad arrived home, he noticed, to our subsequent collective outrage, that someone had stolen one of the bluestone slabs that marked the entrance to our driveway. The pair of bluestones, which my dad bought from a local man, took at least three men to lift, so we were amazed that anyone would go to so much trouble to take one of the pair. 
The police were called, and, in due course, arrived to take a statement. One of the young constables asked my mum when her baby was due, and then began writing faster when she told him that she would be heading to the hospital later that evening. Sure enough, after the police left, my parents went to the hospital and my baby brother was born at breakfast time the following morning. 
27 years later, the remaining bluestone rests in a sunny nook tucked behind my dad’s shed.

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I love this family anecdote. It has a fairy-tale quality about it, I think; as the bluestone is lost, but is replaced by the baby. And in the general weirdness of fairy-tales and the subconscious, it just happens to be Bronwyn's brother's birthday today. Happy Birthday, bluestone baby!!

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Year with Bluestone: Friday House Day (7) Into the Earth we go...

When we demolished the back half of our house in 1999, Paul thought it would be a good idea to dig a wine cellar to go underneath the new extension. He started by pulling up the floor of the only ever half built bathroom. Weirdly, this bathroom stood as a self-contained square in the middle of the old extension: you could actually walk all the way around it.


He started digging a few months before the builders came to pull down the back of the house. We had no spare money so stayed in the house. Our builders moved our sink and stove into the loungeroom so we could cook. We had a hose to come through the window, and emptied the sink into a bucket. We had a portable shower and toilet in the back garden for months, and I used to bathe Joel in a big plastic toybox. Fun times!

But before all that, Paul started digging in the bathroom. At first it was just a small hole you could cover up at night; then eventually the bath had to come out. Digging down beneath layers of bricks he first came to layers of sticky black clay. It seemed unaccountably wet, too, till he realised there was a leak from one of the water pipes...And we sent small children down to do the work.








Then he hit the layer of huge bluestone boulders, jammed in together and stuck to each other with clay. They were too big to lift out, despite enormous crowbars, levers, and concrete breakers. So he hired a series of larger and larger jackhammers to break them up. At one point I looked down and saw him covered in black dust, holding up an enormous jackhammer, powered by a small generator/compressor, as it dug into a rock in front of his waist. Not your best OHS practice. And the house was soon full of black dust and sticky mud. It became a race to get it dug before the builders arrived. Soon they arrived to pull down the back of the house. They would work during the day; Paul would start in the afternoon, digging and digging, enlisting various friends to come and help.


I notice in this photograph below I am wearing a white linen frock; didn't seem to be getting down and dirty at all, myself.



Around the northern suburbs, lots of houses have small cellars for wine, cunningly concealed under floorboards, where you might keep a few boxes in the lovely coolth. But because this was being dug under a new construction, it was subject to all kinds of regulations about reinforcement. We originally had plans for something grandiose like two rooms you could stand up in.... But that was without accounting for the bluestone, that was so hard to dig out. It was physically exhausting, and dispiriting and very very slow, so it became smaller and smaller.






The piles of bluestone by the side of the house stayed there for several years...

And then the night before they were going to put in the scaffolding, Paul realised the layers of concrete and reinforcing were going to be so thick they would mean it would hardly be deep enough to stand up in, so in a super human effort he managed to clear another six inches of depth. It was almost heartbreaking to see how much of his labour went to make room for the frame and the two layers of steel mesh.


Anyway it is now a beautiful and secret place under the house. You can stand up in it, and we have transformed lots of rather ordinary wine into much better wines. And the good wines have become great. So, not a romantic bluestone-lined cellar to look at; but a place forever associated with the blood, sweat and tears of my cellar-loving, bluestone-breaking man.