The bed of poppies seems out of place here, with the muted olive green of the Australian landscape behind it, until I crouch down and become enveloped in the delicate long stems and tissue paper blossoms, and I am transported to a field of poppies, ten thousand miles and twenty years away from here.
That field was owned by the village hippy-outcast, so naturally the old man is a great friend of his. He is young, and is missing his left leg, yet he moves on his crutches with such easy grace that the first thing you notice are his beard and dreadlocks, his hazel eyes clear and untroubled. In his previous incarnation he was a biker, who was hated in the village as he and his friends would roar up the little Hauptstraße in a dragon’s fury of sound and violence. One day he heads out on the Autobahn heading the south towards the beginning of mountains. He is doing nearly 200km/h and at some point leaves the road and destroys a tree and everything burns.
He survives, to the bewilderment of the paramedics who arrived expecting to find only body parts. He loses the leg, and some of his spleen and other organs. He rises like the phoenix from the fire on the autobahn. He discovers his love of his country – an admirable trait in any Austrian, you would imagine – but not a love of the glory of men and empires. Rather he loves the beauty of the little creatures, the trees, the way that the dock leaves clump by the Piesting river, and the sound of fallen leaves underfoot. He inherits a house and a huge vacant plot adjoining it and lets it run to a wild meadow that fill with poppies as red as the blood he gave to renew himself somewhere outside Neunkirchen, in the wreckage of his incarnation.
His house is a treasure trove- mosaic walls hand made from fragments of recycled mirrors, a series of hutches housing both injured animals and a pair of fat rabbits destined for the pot. A little cottage next to the house is like a mixture of apothecary and witches cottage – stuffed pheasants jostle with drying herbs, hand painted parchments of rare and common plants, homemade elderflower champagne seething in bottles and a sculpture crafted from a suit of armour.
He learns as much as anyone has ever learnt about this little world, knowing how to eat and cook from the harvest of the forest that few other’s see. He brews cordials from holly plants – an art that is all but lost to the world. He speaks with trees, pressing his head to them – when he tells me he can hear the sap flowing I believe him implicitly, and still do. He carves signs for the trees, placing them on their trunks, to take advantage of an old law that holds that any ‘recognised’ tree cannot be felled without a subsequent process so complex even the bureaucracy loving Austrians give up and let the sycamores, oaks and larches stretch into the good sun. He still attracts the ire of the village even more perhaps, with his unkempt meddling, his wild tangled garden and his willingness to speak up for the voiceless environment he loves.
We visit often, and share his love and joy, drink eagerly from his fount of knowledge. He fits into the world in a way that no one else in the village can, which is of course the thing that makes him stand out. We go out foraging, mountain climbing, learning with this young man who has left anger and haste behind, and built his own little world of love.
One night we sit around the fire pit in his yard. Two of his biker friends are there, arriving in a rumble of flat twin engines, leather tassels and Native American tattoos. We sit and drink, they pass a series of acrid smelling cigarettes, and a play idly with a young chicken, feeding it crumbs of leftover bread which it takes with a strange, intimate delicacy from my outstretched palm. When the fireflies arrive the group falls silent for a few moments before the hippy begins to sing a traditional song, and I listen as one by one the others join in. It’s the kind of song you hear in the Gasthäuser sung by the sort of lederhosen wearing facsimiles of The Sound Of Music people associate mostly with my homeland; not something you expect to hear from this collection of outcasts. The song tapers to a close, and we sit, and watch the sparks rising from the fire, the green glowing fireflies and the shining stars, underneath a shared night sky.
The year the old man dies, I walk past the hippy’s house once, and wonder about visiting. The poppy field is gone now, new houses fill the space. The once romantic garden just seems unkempt and wild now. Those years ago I never thought about reaching a place where entropy and decay would rest so heavily in my heart. I stand and I wonder what changes have taken place in this life ahead of me. And I decide that I am not ready to find out, and walk away, back into the forest we once shared, and where in my heart he can remain undying forever.