The python slips shoulder-first out of the bromeliads. (I know, snakes don’t have shoulders, but it leads with the bit of itself that would be one.)
I leap backwards—and my harvest basket whangs me in the head.
When I recover my poise, what do I notice? The bromeliads. They’re ragged again, because the local pademelons (small kangaroo-like marsupials) use them as snacks. But goodness, they’re still shining and sharp and striking. And strange.
My partner and I moved to this part of Australia seven years ago this morning, but even though I love the subtropical rainforest we live in, I don’t quite belong yet. I’m still an outsider in our gardens, goggling at the otherness of things. I feel like a tourist, graciously permitted to watch the local traditional dance, but not to participate.
I’m not talking about the plants. Well, sort of. They are subtropical—a far cry from the temperate suburban bushland I grew up in. They’re glossy and heat-loving, and the food plants have alien names—Queensland arrowroot, turmeric, taro, yakon.
But plants are home to me, even the ones here. Sometimes I walk barefoot through the 14 different kinds of groundcover around our house, acknowledging each by name—local and Latin. I frequently eat several species, which sounds heartless after a bonding session like that. But how better to join forces with a plant than to let it nourish you, and then to nourish it in return with the shovellings from the compost toilet?
Our 200-square-meter edibles garden, right next to the python, provides the bulk of my food. If it’s true what they say about the atoms in your body being replaced constantly with the food you ingest, then after seven years my body must be mostly made of this garden. I don’t feel like an outsider with the plants.
It’s the animals.
There’s a hurricane wire fence around the edibles, with a net roof that soars way above my head. If not for the roof defense, voracious rainforest animals would claim everything, right or not. But the fence is a permeable barrier, through which forest life seeps. Within it, a different set of rainforest animals guard—and belong to—the garden.
In the suburbs where I grew up, the plants were the only layer of garden life that mattered. In this subtropical permaculture Eden, animals are an integral part of the whole operation. They eat pests, they pollinate flowers. They provide free manure. They feed the chooks, who also provide free manure. They keep the mice down.
There’re insect-eating birds. There’re tiny green Litoria fallax frogs, locally known as peepers because they sit on stems and stalks, and peep out between the swishing leaves. You can see their little chests thumping as they crouch low when they know they’ve been spotted. There are bees, Cunningham’s skinks, grasshoppers.
While I wait respectfully for the three-meter python to move out of my way, a much smaller python darts unexpectedly out of the Queensland arrowroot. He heads straight for the larger snake and—this is odd—wriggles right on top of him.
Suddenly they’re both weirdly raising their heads as high as they can, swaying with the effort.
I forget I comically hit my head with the harvest basket—and remember reading about this. In spring, male pythons challenge each other to silent duels of who-can-raise-their-heads-the-highest-for-the-longest. It’s a territorial thing, the guidebooks say.
The outcome of this is a foregone conclusion. The smaller, “David” snake is barely a meter long and, even standing on the tip of his tail, could never reach the height that “Goliath” maintains easily.
When David realizes his position, he drops to the ground and dashes away. I chuckle, then stifle it. Just because I’m allowed to watch doesn’t mean I should be rude.
Unfortunately, Goliath now looks like he’s settled in. He’s no longer moving out of my way. I change plans and tiptoe into the Yakin patch. Just to avoid conflict.
I pick up the garden hose, thinking what polite strangers seven years has made us, the garden animals and me. We still haven’t had a beer together, or whatever the equivalent is. Oh, well.
When I turn back to the tap, I’m startled to find my way blocked.
By Goliath. There’s no way around him, except through the stinging nettle patch. I am wearing shorts.
He’s only a python, he’s not venomous. And for some reason I don’t get the feeling he’s going to attack. But he’s really close. I can see a small scar just under his eye. And he’s leading with his head this time, not his shoulder.
We both pause, conscious of the other. He’s stretched out on the hose. Does he think it’s another python, like David?
Tentatively, I raise my hand with the hose in it, as if the hose were the body of a dueling snake. Goliath responds, coiling around the hose and raising his head straight in the air. I answer, raising my hand higher. Goliath begins to sway.
I can’t help smiling. I’m in. I’m part of the annual python ritual. Who’d have thought?
Goliath is heavy, and leaning on the hose. My arm is tiring quickly, but I feel like this is something special and I don’t want to lose the moment. He’s straining, too. It’s an effort for him.
He flicks his tongue. I wonder how I appear to him. As a smell/taste? Can he see me at all? Are we competing here? Communicating?
After several minutes, including a number of arm-burning moments when I seriously consider lowering the hose and braving the nettles, Goliath decides to call it a day. He glides to the ground and makes his slow way out through the garden fence. It’s not a panicked dash for safety, like David made. He returns to the bromeliads, so I don’t feel like I’ve won a territorial dispute. I feel like…
Like we’ve had a beer together. At last, after seven years, I feel less like an outsider. ❖