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  • Writer's pictureDamian Robb

Stray Thoughts 02 | Backyard Biosphere


I live in inner city Melbourne, right by a freeway. And when I say right by, I mean that literally as it exists behind my back fences, of which there are two, both high and thick in an attempt to soundproof. On the other side of those is a near constantly moving five lane river of traffic. I’m sitting in my backyard now beside the fences, listening to that traffic, which, while not quiet, I luckily mostly consider white noise, no different from sitting by a beach and listening to the waves crash.

My backyard is not a pretty one by any measure. Aside from being boarded by a trio of high fences and our house, it is also almost entirely carpeted with concrete. This concrete carpet is hard, rough in places, mismatched and uneven, as though it has grown over time, extending out like mildew. This carpet of concrete also means that on days it is hot, the backyard takes on the atmosphere of a desert, dry and baking, with the heat coming from below as well as above.

Also present in this backyard is a shed, or garage I suppose, although it’s never held a car as long as I’ve lived here. Instead, it is filled with tools and gardening supplies, as well as all those bits and pieces you only occasionally need. Its exterior is sheet metal painted in a horrendous colour known as mission brown, a leftover from the decor-confused 60’s and 70’s.

In my youth, when I was eighteen or so, I spent a couple of years removing this colour from various houses in my hometown of Traralgon. I was working as a painter at the time, it should be noted, I wasn’t just a rogue redecorator quietly giving peoples houses a makeover in the middle of the night, although it was satisfying to eradicate that heinous colour even if I did mostly replace it with primrose, the bland and tasteless 2000s equivalent. I also fully understand the irony that I haven’t removed the mission brown currently squatting in my own backyard. But what can I say, humans are complicated.

On two sides of the garage are thin strips of the only grass in the backyard, but grass here is a generous term. Up until a couple of years ago these areas had been brick, but, in a covid-times fuelled need for a project, I ripped it all up and put grass seed down so we could have an extra bit of greenery back there. However, one of the bits of greenery that already existed, a eucalyptus tree and a wattle (maybe? I'm not sure), both growing from the space between the two back fences, one on our property and one on a neighbour's, weren’t having it. They drop leaves so frequently and in such quantities that it quickly smothered my grass seeds, so only the most hardy, and a few friendly but unwanted weeds, were ever able to push through.

Despite all this concrete and fencing, further greenery does exist in our little corner of the urban jungle. There’s both a lemon and a lime tree, housed in big pots, and left there by my twin brother when he went overseas, to be picked up on his return. That was almost ten years ago and he has yet to come back for them, but by all accounts his viennese wife, son, and house do enjoy his company, even if the lemon and lime tree are bereft of it. These citrus trees, housed as they are in the desert of concrete, are stubbornly kept alive by my loving wife who takes such good care of them that they have even started to fruit within the last year or so.

Also in attendance are a collection of potted succulents and cacti, more appropriate to the desert setting and who cheerfully provide some colour against the grey with very little attention needed. They are the quiet middle child of the backyard, happy to mostly look after and entertain themselves.

And then we have their little sister, Ivy, who started small, but has quickly outgrown her siblings, wisely climbing and taking over one of the tall back fences in order to do so. Ivy started in a pot like everyone else, but when her appetite for growth proved voracious, I chipped away a section of the concrete to unearth the, well … earth, beneath, and replant her in it. She freaking loved it and we’ve been trying to both guide and reign her in ever since.

Which brings us to the final member and big brother of the backyard greenery family. Fig Tree. Years ago, I tried to murder Fig Tree. He had grown in such a way that he had become a nuisance and so I decided to cut him back a little, but then got a little too exuberant doing so and reduced him to barely a stump. It didn’t matter, Fig Tree is relentless and came back bigger and stronger than ever before, and is now a welcome addition to the backyard, providing a much needed pocket of shade.

Despite the noise, and the walls, and the concrete, and the heat, I’ve come to love this inhospitable little backyard, and I’m not the only one, as we have managed to see all manner of life pass through. A big part of this is thanks to Fig Tree because toward the start of every year he bursts forth with fruit and becomes a smorgasbord for all the local fauna.

Here’s a quick story.

This time last year we started hearing sounds coming from our backyard at night. They were strange, a combination of clicks and chirps that sounded like they were issuing forth from some kind of hollow and broken throat. And if you’re thinking that sounds like horror movie territory, you’re not wrong. Being the cowards we are, we ignored it for a couple of nights, but then one night the sounds were so loud and frequent that it became impossible to ignore. We turned on the outside light and peered through the kitchen window, waiting for some monstrous abomination to come crawling across the concrete. Instead, we saw Fig Tree's leaves moving. Fig Tree, located right outside the kitchen window, is dense, and so we did our best to peer through his branches and leaves to see what was causing the movement and the sound. A long leathery wing protruded out from behind the foliage, followed quickly by the body of the fruit bat. It approached one of the ripe juicy figs and bit into it as we rushed to get our phones to try and take a photo. This would become our routine for the next few weeks. We’d wait to hear its strange horror movie cry, then rush to the kitchen window where we would try to capture it in pixels. This proved harder than expected thanks to the dim lighting, the dense branches, and the bats constant movement and preponderance to take flight whenever it sensed our own movement.

Melbourne has many fruit bats. They nest in the Yarra Bend park during the day and then take to the air at night, during which time you can watch tens of thousands of them cross the evening sky. One of these tens of thousands found our fig tree. We can’t be sure but are fairly confident that it’s the same one returning night after night. A grey-headed flying-fox, if my research is correct, which is native to Australia and one of the largest bats in the world, also known as a megabat. It is mostly covered in grey brown fur, except for a collar of orange around its neck. We named this bat Fig, after its favourite fruit.

Fig may have been the happiest bat in all of Melbourne. Every night, they gorged themself, happy to seemingly keep the secret of our backyard to themself, as we only ever saw the one bat. Which isn’t to say we didn’t see other nocturnal fauna, as, like I said, we’ve had a surprising amount of life pass through our backyard. Tiny mice and rats would also feed on the figs, and once even a possum, who Fig did their best to scare away with a series of aggressive squeaks and squeals. The possum, who we named Pudding, (Fig ‘n’ Pudding, Figgy Pudding, you get it) didn’t seem to mind. It managed to harvest itself a fig or two and then disappear between the fences.

So those are our nighttime backyard friends, but we have plenty in the day as well. There’s the huge assortment of birds, likewise brought in by Fig Tree’s fruit. Lorikeets, and starlings, and blackbirds, and miners, and plenty others. There are also the neighbourhood cats who slink through at odd hours, going who knows where. And once, a fox, who greeted us one morning, standing proudly on one of the high back fences. How it got up there, I’m not even sure it knows.

Eventually, all of Fig Tree’s figs were eaten or dropped away as autumn approached. As the fruit left, so too did Fig, and in winter our backyard lost both its greenery and its life, returning to a place of greys and browns. We didn’t know if Fig would return. I don’t know how much bats retain in their cute little heads, or even what their lifespan is. And so as spring returned and with it the green, we wondered and waited.

During Melbourne’s record breaking lockdown, I spent a lot of time in that backyard, and if I didn’t already appreciate it before then, I certainly did after. During lockdown I started doing a photo-a-day project on my instagram, sharing a photo I had taken each day along with a small caption explaining the scene. Often, when I couldn’t be bothered to go a-wandering, I would step into our small inhospitable backyard and find something photo worthy. An insect or a leaf or a whorl in the wood, and, when I was lucky, some little bit of life, passing through.

A few weeks ago, Fig Tree once more plump with fruit, we heard a strange sound coming from the backyard, a combination of clicks and chirps that sounded like they were issuing forth from some kind of hollow and broken throat.

Fig was back.

When I’ve told people this story, some of them have asked why we don’t pick the figs and keep them for ourselves. Maybe make some jam or a tart. But truthfully, I’m happy with how things are now. Those figs are well and truly providing us with value, their benefit just happens to lie not in their taste or their calories, but in what they bring to our backyard.

Holly recently managed to capture the best footage of Fig yet. In it, they are pulling themself through the tree before wrapping their mouth around one of the thick green fruits, which they then pluck free, before leaving in a flurry of wings. And if you'd like to see this video for yourself, and enjoy Holly's commentary as she filmed it, I'll add it to the bottom of this post.

I’ll finish by saying that when I first moved to the city at nineteen, I found the landscape to be imposing and grey. Always busy with human activity, which even managed to encroach upon the sky, removing the horizons it turned out I had always taken for granted. It felt dull and depressing and lifeless. But I’ve since learned that the life is there, you just have to look for it a little bit harder.

Thank you so much for reading these Stray Thoughts and until next time, step outside, explore your backyard if you're lucky enough to have one, or maybe a nearby park if you're not, try and find some animals or some plants, give them silly names, and a personality, and just let them know you’re thinking about them.


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