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Mum turned 80 last year

By Elizabeth Leathbridge, Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health (WATCH)

Mum turned 80 last year.  Although she didn’t want a fuss, we threw her a party anyway. As I looked around at numerous happy, healthy and lively octogenarians, I began to ruminate on what they had experienced and survived during their lives, and what they might have to teach us about survival in a future with more people and fewer resources to go around.

They survived a World War, and epidemics of Spanish flu and polio which closed schools for months at a time. The lucky ones survived childhoods of measles, diphtheria and whooping cough without vaccines or antibiotics, and farm accidents with no quick recourse to a doctor or hospital.

From a farming community 27 miles from town, most began life in houses without power or water, other than a tap through the kitchen wall from the rainwater tank.   Grandpa’s expensive diesel generator powered two lights at once!  Water was pumped up from the well by hand.

Gran kept chooks, grew vegies and fruit, made butter, baked and preserved.  Washing was done in the wood-fired “copper” and then mangled. Too far away for an “ice-man” to deliver iceblocks for a Coolgardie safe, the kerosene refrigerator rendered the kitchen hot and smelly in summer.   

Perishable foods were stored in the cellar, and the cow milked daily.  Our tastes have changed – Grandpa demanded his meat hang in the cellar for at least a week to “ripen” properly.

Teenaged Mum drove a pony and trap.  Farming relied on teams of men and horses, few chemicals, and hard manual labour.  The physical work and fresh food probably explains their long lives and their mental and emotional resilience.

For Mum, as for us, early mornings began with the welcome sound of her father tipping a scuttle of coke into the AGA. 

Knitting, sewing, “making do” and doing without were automatic when the shops were two hour’s drive away.  Children’s clothes were homemade, and gifts were books, wooden toys or hand-knitted jumpers.  Something shop-bought was an exciting novelty. 

The skills and knowledge Mum and her friends take for granted are astounding, and I wonder if we will need them as the world’s oil runs low, fuel becomes restricted, and more hungry people come our way. I feel we should talk to our elders, and learn how they farmed with horses, managed their low-technology houses, and thrived in this country without our dependence on petrochemicals.