howie drives his new car over. it is a rusty holden and he has carefully painted ‘driving for jesus’ on the roof in big green letters. he says, ‘this is so god can look down and show mercy in road accidents and heavy traffic.’ on the back window is a collection of rainforest slogan stickers. it is an unusual combination.
howie has started to look a little bit like jesus, with his hair all long and his attempted beard and his hippy shirt. i plan to paint ‘jesus is driving’ on the bonnet in big green letters.
he tells mary and i that ashton’s circus is on tonight in daylesford and why don’t we all just drive there and why don’t we all chip in and buy some alcohol for the journey?
our local hotel is full of animals. we’ve never been inside, we just believe what we see through the windows. we buy island coolers form the drive-in bottle shop, so we don’t have to get out of the car. we can roll the windows up if we need to, howie says that it’s like driving through the bulleen african lion safari.
save the bush
we are passing through bulleen past the actual ghost of the old bulleen african lion sufari park, you can still see the zebra stripes on the public tiolets. my parents took us there on trips to melbourne. you just drove your car in there and lions would jump on it.
howie keeps leaning out the window and screaming the botanical names of trees we pass along the highway. it is very unsettling for me and mary. ‘look, exocarpos cupressiformis,’ he jabbers wildly as i grab the wheel.
he starts complaining about the rainforest action group, saying that they are only ever interested in new-age hippy bullshit: rainforests and dolphins. he has since realised that he has never swum with a dolphin, never walked in a rainforest. ‘fuck the rainforests,’ he says. ‘they get heaps of media attention. what about the endangered species all around us? we’re in brunswick and the rainforests are in brisbane. what about the long-neck tortoise? the blue devil? kangaroo grass? we should go and chain ourselves to the trees along merri creek.’
he has been getting into indigenous plants, taking up their cause with a religious fervour. he has joined a group of volunteers that protects the grasslands along the merri creek and volunteers at the victorian indigenous nursery cooperative at the brunswick community farm, he studies the noxious environmental weed list in the flora of melbourne. he talks about a big privet hedge he knows in glen iris. he spits out venom about the evil weeds invading the whole countryside, pointing at them out the window: christmas trees, blackberries, agapanthus, sweet vernal grass, paterson’s curse…
a metaphor for me and howie
exocarpos cuppressiformis is a native cypress with edible fruits. it has been called the nigger plum or native cherry. the wood has a nice, tight grain and is used by aboriginal people for making woomeras. it has a parasitic relationship with another tree—it doesn’t harm the host. the host just says, ‘here, have one of my roots, man.’
the more howie learns about the bush, the more he discovers what is wrong with it. he realises that the world is completely fucked. that merri creek is only one vein in the country’s circulatory system and it is dying.
the thing about bush regeneration is that it is like a religion to some people. it attracts mad extremists, environmental terrorists. martyrs for the cause.
he rips open his second island cooler. ‘we used to buy a four-pack of these and drink till we threw up and that was a good night, remember?’ he says between swallows. ‘it’s a good name for it, island cooler. it’s like drinking sea water. it gives you that sort of shipwrecked feeling in the morning, it’s like drowning it tastes to bad.’
he is becoming weary, heavy-eyed, his voice breaking off at the end of each sentence. one more island cooler and we will wind up burned beyond recognition, twisted around some tree that howie knows the botanical name of.
mary is getting scared. she grips my arm urgently. ‘i need to have a piss!’ she says loudly. ‘i want to stop off at woodend for fish ‘n’ chips.’ this sounds good to howie. he composes himself a little and steadies the car on the road. then he clears his throat and starts again. ‘they’re about to build a factory on the last remaining patch of urban grassland. grasslands have as much biodiversity as rainforests.’ he holds up an index finger. ‘did you know that?’
i am extremely alert, ready to grab the wheel at any time.
‘if the merri creek was a rainforest, we would have no worries. no worries at all. you’d have feral hippies camped out for miles. there would be arguments about who was going to roll under the bulldozer.’
there’s a shitface selling hot dogs and all the clowns are smiling and there are no mondays here. everything is big top, everything is saturday. there’s popcorn, fairyfloss, fat lady on a stool. a lion jumps through a hoop of fire, three rings and a high wire. mary eats her doughnut and says it’s really terrible what they make those lions do and howie looks at the hoops of fire and the cogs are whirring and the wheels are spinning and he says that it’s really terrible too.
and it’s a three-ring show and the lion-tamer cracks his whip and they snarl their teeth, and he’s yelling, ‘up titan, up samson’ and he’s cracking that whip and waving his gun. finally the show is over. howie says he’s going off to have a piss and we say we’ll meet him at the exit. we have to wait for ages and mary says that he must be having a shit then. she hits me over the side of the head. she says that howie is an extremely dangerous driver. ‘i’m not going back in the car if howie is driving,’ she says, but she can’t drive, i’m too drunk to drive and it’s freezing. howie suddenly comes running out from behind a tent flap and says, ‘let’s go.’
we follow him out the exit and jump into his car and then the lion-tamer comes running out into the carpark like he’s looking for something. he’s holding his whip and bending it in the middle like he wants to kill someone.
howie starts his engine and we roar away.
we speed down the highway with all the windows open. i have hidden all the island coolers. howie looks extremely pleased with himself. he obviously has something to tell us. ‘the lion, i let her go. i let her go, she growled her goodbyes to me and bounded off into the bush.’
‘howie, you idiot,’ i yell at him. we are travelling at a tremendous speed. ‘you let it bound into the bush? it’ll bound into fucking ballarat and some yobbo bastard with a gun will shoot it.’
‘it might not go into the towns, it might live out int he bush.’
‘it will walk into a caravan park and eat a baby.’
but howie is righteous, triumphant. he points his finger up at the sky, stamps his foot on the accelerator. ‘orders from above,’ he says in a high, toffy voice. all debate is drowned by his preaching. he looks over at mary for some approval but her face is dead tight and she is all hunched up against the door. she slowly repeats, ‘slow down, howie. just keep your eyes on the road, howie.’ she shakes her head like she can’t believe she is letting this lunatic drive us home. she’s not talking to anybody, she is not listening to howie’s sermon about a magical universe.
the hedgeburning continues. it’s in the newspapers, neighbourhood watch is in uproar, residents are living in fear. the television has turned the hedgeburner into a sort of folk hero. someone has put out a hedgeburner t-shirt. now we thrill to the sight of a smouldering hedge, as if we have caught sight of elvis or jesus christ. this is only the beginning. soon there will be a whole range of paraphernalia: teatowels, board games, hedgeburner cordial.
the newspapers have suggested, with the help of psychologists, that the hedgeburner probably masturbates in the bushes while watching his hedges burn. albert goldman will write his biography.
howie has new tattoos: a lion and some japanese letters. he says that the letters mean ‘luck’ or something. i tell him that the letters could just about mean anything. i tell him that they probably mean ‘get fucked’, and one day a gang of japanese exchange students will attack him with a meat cleaver.
‘the lion is nothing,’ he says. ‘i’m going to get a huge one on my chest of alby mangels and crocodile dundee.’ he gives me the thumbs-up, says, ‘you beauty, mate.’
he stares at the lion on his chest, touches it. ‘no,’ he says. ‘this is important, this means something.’
(from snail, Penguin Books, 1996)