October is upon us once more. A long, cold southern Australian winter is slowly subsiding into an exuberantly floral spring. Swathes of flowers and lush grasses decorate parks and gardens and verges all over the neighbourhood. It’s a beautiful walk from my house to the bus stop, but I’d enjoy it more if I could stop sneezing. I’ve been in the throws of hay-fever every morning now for weeks. Strangely enough, it seems that while my nose is sensitive to pollen, it’s not even slightly bothered by actual hay. This was a good thing, as last week I spent the best part of two days ankle deep in the stuff.
The year marches on. The Royal Show has been and gone again. This year I was assigned duty in the chick-cuddling and pig-patting pens in the biggest animal pavilion. On Monday (last week) I spent several hours scooping cheeping bundles of yellow fluff out of an incubator, handing them out to awe-struck children (and adults), and returning them safe again. Although I’m not keen on most species of bird, and decidedly apprehensive of a few of them, I’ve always been fond of chickens. The adult hens and roosters – of which they were plenty on display in the bird pavilion – are magnificent. But the infant chicks are just handfuls of delight. Pocket-sized, down-covered bodies with delicate wings and scrawny, scrabbly legs; shining black eyes with tissue-soft grey eyelids, and tiny, pale-pink beaks. They are some of the most endearing babies of the animal kingdom. To hold them and feel their body-warmth, their pattering heartbeats and small, heaving breaths is one of those privately magical experiences worth more than all the rides, food and cheap junk at the Show. Watching small children hold the chicks carefully, marvelling at the little pockets of life in their hands, was truly the icing on the cake.
Then, on Wednesday, I was with the piglets. This was a bit different as it involved less rushing around and less gentleness but probably more vigilance. The piglets – of which we had three at a time – were lively and energetic. They weren’t the slightest bit bothered by the curious and affectionate hands feeling over them, but weren’t particularly engaged with them either. They charged happily around the pen, nibbling shoelaces and occasionally attempting to escape. The squeaked and grunted constantly and pressed their damp, pink snouts into everything and everyone. I loved it. All we (there were only two of us – as opposed to the four or five in with the chicks) had to do was manage the number people in and out of the gate and prevent them from picking up the piglets (who would squeal ear-splittingly if they did). And prevent the piglets from getting out of the gate. You really wouldn’t credit how strong a three-week old pig could be until you’ve tried to redirect them from where they want to go. Aside from that it was plain sailing, and great pleasure watching the kids petting the warm and snuffly animals. There were two particularly humorous incidents, of the same kind but on separate occasions. In both instances a small boy, who had been happily cuddling the piglets, looked me in the face and asked with genuine curiosity, “Why do they smell like bacon?”
Unfortunately I have no pictorial evidence of my volunteering. Partly because I was too busy working to take photographs in the pen, and partly because, on the second day I was there, the family iPad met a sorry end. What happened was simply that the cap came off my water bottle and spilled a lot of water inside my bag. I lost a handful of photographs from the show and several dozen from a family afternoon-tea (at which my uncle also took pictures) but thankfully nothing more important. The iPad (which was not recent purchase) is probably covered by insurance.
However, the previous week’s expedition to the botanical gardens had already been uploaded to my computer. And so I can present to you the colourful expression of native Australian spring!