The candle nut tree’s bark is blotchy and still damp from the rains of the past month. The trees are planted down near the kiwi orchard by the road. On the day I go there with Anastasia and Julia, we are moving the sheep. Anastasia picks up a handful of the strange, waxy nuts from the ground and puts them in her pockets.
Good weather has finally arrived and these last couple of days have been sunny and lazy. Time is measured differently on the weekend or when you’re not working a traditional job. I don’t set an alarm but I’m woken up early by the cliffs catching the light across the valley. Time is marked by impatient ducks asking to be let out of their pens in the morning and by the magpies growing louder and then quieter.
In our subtropical climate, marking the time with European seasons can feel a little ill fitting. We live on the lands of the Arakwal people of the Bundjalung Nation. This is a great resource by the Jali Local Aboriginal Land Council about local seasons on Nyangbul land, which we live slightly north west of.
The natural world has always been one way to measure the passing of time. Harvests, the sun and moon, weather patterns, the migration of birds. Candle nuts are one other way of measuring time that doesn’t quite fit the status quo. These trees grow all around the Pacific and Southeast Asia and have an incredible array of uses. They’re toxic when eaten raw but in Southeast Asia, they’re cooked into a variety of dishes, from curries to chilli paste. One special thing about these nuts is that due to their high oil content you can light them on fire very easily. Once alight, they burn slowly, like a small candle. The oil from the nuts is also used as lamp oil, in some cosmetic products and even in tattoo ink in Hawai’i and Borneo. The flammability of candlenuts also led to them be used as a time keeping device. Traditionally in Hawai’i, candle nuts are strung on a length of string and set alight at one end, the nuts gradually burning one by one. As another nut finishes burning this marks the passing of 15 minutes.
On these long days where time is measured by the sunlight sliding across the floor rather than a clock on the wall, I spend my time in the garden or bush walking. I plant mesclun lettuce seeds and broad beans. We drive to a nearby waterhole and swim under a stingingly cold waterfall. Back at home we lie outside in the sun, reading, growing slowly warm again. In the late afternoon we search for the sheep, they need to be moved from the big paddock before dark. We search by the dam and clamber down the ridge, shouting to them and shaking feed buckets. From above, the kiwi orchard looks soft and billowy, like clouds through an aeroplane window. We take a break to pick our fill of near ripe kiwi fruits, losing each other beneath the full trellises and growing dusk. Once we find the sheep (they haven’t left on any adventures this time) we lead them back up the track to the smaller paddock by the house.
The setting sun tells us it’s time to put the ducks and chickens away. As a child, it was always my job to shut the chicken house at night. It was such a deeply ingrained daily ritual that now, wherever I am in the world, my internal clock tells me when it’s chicken bedtime. Even if I’m in a city in a foreign country, as dusk gathers I’ll feel an impatient tug telling me it’s time to put the chooks to bed.
The hills turn a soft blue-grey before they become dark silhouettes against the sky. This past week, the nights have been clear and cold. The moon is just a waxing crescent and the sky is heavy with constellations. As I walk home across the paddock after dinner, I switch off the torch for a moment and the darkness surrounds me, full and soft. The milky way spreads out from the horizon, a hazy glow above the trees.