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Spring is eternal, just like weeds

By Richard Glover

The glory of a Sydney spring begins at 7 o'clock one Saturday morning when you stand at your back door and marvel at the beauty of the season. It finishes 2 minutes later when you notice the first weed pushing up between the paving stones on the back porch.

The weed pokes up its head, looks around and signals that conditions are right for the invasion to begin. It's as if a whistle has been blown; the rest of the forces roll in. Within minutes, there are bindies in the lawn, magpies swooping from above and an infantry of cockroaches marching into the house.

"Hang on," you stutter. "I was quite enjoying being here on my own ..."

The weeds grow knee-high. Moths appear in the pantry. A family of mice sets up house near the compost bin. This is all in the first 20 minutes. An hour on, your house is thrumming with life. It's worse than a teenage party that's gone viral on MySpace. Already there are cockroaches copulating in your pot drawers. This is one thing even teenagers won't do.

What happened to that moment in mid-spring when you could sit outside, the sunshine warming your pale skin, the season still too young for flies and mosquitoes? Well, you missed it. It happened yesterday. Lasted five minutes. You were at work. Bad luck. Now it's party time for every other species in the neighbourhood.

Someone has put a honey jar back in the cupboard, a dribble of the sweet stuff snaking down the side. It happened only three minutes ago but already a colony of ants has heard the news and is heading in from outside.

This I find a little freaky. How do the ants know about this single drip of honey, hidden on a dark shelf in our kitchen? Are there enemies within - informers in the food cupboard, ready to report the latest in sugar-spill or honey-drip news? Is that packet of two-minute noodles a secret broadcast station?

Outside, cockroaches the size of small dogs are lurking around the barbecue, hoping for a dropped sausage. The larger ones bring a couple of slices of bread and their own bottle of tomato sauce. The magpies are the size of small fighter jets. The mosquitoes sit behind a screen of bushes, checking their watches, rolling their large eyes, as they remark on how long it is to dusk. "Frankly, I'm starving," says one, staring at a juicy section of your thigh. "Just wait until five," says his companion. "You don't want to start drinking at lunchtime."

It's like life on the Serengeti after the first rains of the season. You half expect David Attenborough to emerge from behind the impenetrable thicket of onion weed, which, so soon, has the house surrounded.

I need to mount some form of resistance. I race to the hardware store and buy enough chemicals to create a biological desert for years to come. I'm thinking of the sacking of Carthage and then plus some. I install cockroach traps in the pot drawers and nail mice baits behind the compost bin. I encircle the ants with a glistening river of toxicity. I salt the fields and burn all outlying barns.

Nothing works. The mice throw the baits down like so many cough lozenges. The ants frolic in the ant-killing goo like kids in a Darling Harbour fountain. The onion weed gurgles as it skolls its glyphosate cocktail, nodding its head as if to say, "More, please".

I return to the hardware store. I ask the man what to do about the onion weed. He stares at me balefully, pauses a moment and delivers his verdict: "Sell up. Burn your possessions. Move to Adelaide. Leave no forwarding address." I buy another 10 bottles of glyphosate. If it doesn't work on the onion weed, I can always drink it myself.

By night-time I'm exhausted and a little frightened. Jocasta and I huddle in the bedroom, sleepless due to a family of cicadas that has moved to just outside the bedroom window. "How would they like it," says Jocasta, "if I went and lay next door to them, screaming in their ear-holes all night long: cchikas, cchikas, cchikas. I'd like to see them put up with it."

I'm unsure whether they have ears. Or the capacity to be threatened in this way. Jocasta is treating them as if they were just another noisy neighbour with whom one can play tit-for-tat: "You played your AC/DC at midnight, so here's some of my Janis Ian at dawn." That strategy may have worked on Mike and Fiona back in Illawarra Road but will it work here?

I imagine Jocasta lying on the paving outside, head propped up on her hand, singing to the cicadas - a final sign, if one was needed, that the insects have won the battle of spring.

The British scientist J.B.S. Haldane was asked about the animal kingdom and what it told us about the nature of God. It was clear, he replied, that God had an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Either that or God believes that every pleasure must be bundled with a little pain. In Sydney, in spring, there is so much pleasure, maybe it's inevitable that it has to be shared.

October 4th, 2008.

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