I love small towns intensely. I love their big small joys, unique character and often eccentric indulgences that are nearly erased from big cities. Last fortnight, work took me to Australia, and a good friend, Maxine Williamson, invited me for the weekend to her country house in Mount Alford near Boonah, 1.5 hours' drive from Brisbane. It is an atmospheric home, converted from a 1909 Lutheran church, decommissioned in 1988. Quite amazing.
Mount Alford is a small town (population 344), set in a beautiful landscape called "Scenic Rim" — you drive amid dry, yellow fields of grain, vineyards and lavender fields, ringed by blue mountains. Kangaroos and their joeys leapt off as we drove past.
There was Maxine, Peter ("he's not my husband, he's the father of my children," said the radical and inspiring Maxine; they cordially co-parent), their children Buddy, 13 and Dusty, 11, Olive, their honey-eyed Rhodesian dog, and me. The church house is one massive, airy wooden room, with stained glass windows, and a roof about 25 feet high. It is filled with all the wonderful, eccentric things collected over a lifetime, that would struggle to find space in a compact city flat: the grandparents' wedding cutlery, exquisitely shaped glass bottles, a Chinese poster of a farmer smiling in a tractor. It is a dry area, and we drank boiled rainwater, collected off the roof in tanks.
We went for a swim in the Moogerah Lake — cold with warm undercurrents. Olive is a terrific swimmer, and loved to fetch twigs thrown in the water. We passed a lonely 'Honey $5' sign with no one around: you take a honey bottle and leave the money under a stone. We fed carrots to a neighbour's beautiful, long-lashed horses: Stormboy, Luna and Rumba.
The town has one main drag, with a bakery, school, post office, restaurant and brewery. The lady at the bakery has known Maxine since before her children were born. And at the cozy restaurant, you see contact details for a "bee whisperer".
Maxine has seen kangaroos close to her plot, and once had a koala bear and her baby on one of her gum (eucalyptus) trees. She talked casually of snakes, including the Eastern Brown and Death Adder: you call a snake catcher and he "relocates" the snake, she shrugs. Mornings and evenings were filled with birdsong, with cockatoos, parakeets, ibises, galahs, melodious pied butcherbirds and noisy miners.
On Sunday, we do gardening: it is a real pleasure to work with your hands, instead of just your head: I learn to put a circle of gypsum powder two feet from the tree trunk, cover it with "5-i-1" (the manure of five farm animals), a layer of horsedung, and finally, a generous layer of mulch — fallen leaves, that we have raked up. It is hard work, but exhilarating.
As we drive back to the city, it is drizzling outside. As we watch blue mountain-ringed, chalk-yellow fields whiz past, beyond a blur of raindrops squiggling across the windshield, Maxine puts on Soheil Nafisi — romantic, soulful, Iranian Farsi songs, sung French chanson-style. As I listen in silence, overwhelmed by so much beauty, I feel the sting of salt in my eyes.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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