Touch wood

The trouble with using ash to create a barrier for ghosts is that any breeze or air disturbance can spread the ash around, which not only makes a mess but of course cancels the barrier function to exit or entry, which was the main purpose in the first place. The other consideration is that the ash can be disturbed after your back is turned, so the keeping out (or in) quality is never assured.

The lore available recommends using lighter ash, like what may be found in a campfire after a larger log slowly burns away over a calm night. It is the type of ash that very old school jewellers may have used to polish metal — ash and spit was the accepted fix for tarnish in the days before bottles of polish were available. The white-grey ash is more effective, the recommendations say, but this type is also the sort more likely to be lightweight and liable to be disturbed.

In fact, given these inherent qualities in the material recommended, you might wonder why ash was even used in the first place. Given the thousands of years these sorts of tricks have been around to counter the various other ephemeral entities we’re required to deal with, and that the materials available to the ancients was more limited than today, it was still surprising, given how advanced so many other aspects of normal day-to-day living have become, that a very old and very basic substance such as ash maintains its prominence in such a common activity. You would have thought they’d have developed an alternative by now.

Still, there was an acceptable degree of wriggle room, although such flexibility could never be accredited to modern interventions. The source of the product — burnt apple tree, eucalyptus, elm, oak, acacia etc — was never an issue. It was more the type of ash produced that was the focus — although of course the original wood and its burning qualities would have an influence over that, as would the heat of the fire. And the location of the originating fire was similarly unimportant. This could be outside, in a fireplace, north or east facing, backyard, near a river, in a car park — none of that mattered. Small blessings, but welcome also in that a quick and ready solution was usually needed in a hurry. A line of ash, a few quick words, and even a wraith is able to be kept in check. And given the lightness of the material, as mentioned, the operation usually had to be repeated, and often. You really had to keep on your toes.

One surprising location where the long-term effectiveness of ghost blocking using ash was found to be proved, although initially no-one was even aware that this was the case, was at the historically preserved water wheel flour milling cottage that was right next to the river at Whitcombe, before the water flow reduced so much due to extensive irrigation infrastructure the government embarked on years after the flour mill was established.

The cottage had been the home of the families who were employed to operate one of the last of the very few water mills that existed in Australia. The mill’s water wheel and about half of the stone building that housed the flour-making operations were in ruins, but the nearby miller’s cottage still stood, and had been preserved and turned into a museum — not only for the mill’s history but the local area in general.

For many decades it was thought that the mill cottage was free of the spirits and hauntings that was almost expected with any other older habitations, whether abandoned or not. It wasn’t so much that such incidences weren’t deemed to be possible in this instance, but that there were no records of anything like that happening with the cottage, as usually these things are notable enough to be written down and kept with the municipal documentation. So over time the use of the words haunting and flour production together in the same sentence was never part of conversations about the miller’s cottage.

For many decades the cottage-museum provided a diversion for visitors, and an excursion destination for schools, both nearby and further away, and did its part to keep some of the local area’s history alive as well as to inform the general public about an interesting aspect of the industry involved.

As a viable flour mill, the last grain to pass through its water-driven grinding stones was only a few decades after the structure was built, but the eventual museum function of the cottage was not taken up until many decades after that. The interim years, after the cottage was left idle once the commercial operations of the mill ended, were not really documented, but left to hearsay and the vague recollections of locals. Once the option of earning a living was taken away, the cottage and the other buildings were forgotten by most. The family who lived there had just moved away, not even taking the furniture, the drapes, rugs, crockery, pots and pans or anything else — these were all supplied and owned by the business that ran the mill, so the people living there at the time the business shut down (the second such family to occupy the buildings since the mill had been operating) just moved out and left behind everything but whatever they had brought with them in the first place. This fact was later to prove of great benefit to the historical credentials of the abandoned cottage when it was considered for a museum, given that the everyday items left there were such that were in use from a generation or more before, such as the cast iron cookware, although no-one guessed that other residual factors were also left in place, which would later prove problematic and require use of the aforementioned ash.

It was quite a long time, but within living memory, after the cottage-museum opened as an off-road attraction that it was decided some more room was needed. Over the years, donations of antiques and curios had been coming in from the farmhouses thereabouts as well as older residences in the nearby town, handed over by modern descendants who didn’t really want to keep every antique item from previous generations found in the back of a dusty cupboard, but who were equally not ready to assign every heirloom to the rubbish tip. And apart from the need for more storage and display room, a considerable part of the construction concept included a souvenir and refreshments area.

An extension to the cottage was voted on, planned, had funds raised, and saw volunteers put on a roster. A certified builder was required by the municipality to oversee regulatory compliance, but one of the volunteers could tick those boxes.

The extension to the miller’s cottage was of course the sort of volunteer-driven endeavour that takes a long time to complete, and in this instance took a good two summers (enthusiasm dropped markedly over winter). It was however at the beginning of the second summer, in a renewed push to complete the building works — hopefully to coincide with the nearby town’s bicentenary celebrations — that the secret of the miller’s cottage’s ghost blocking came to be revealed.

The floor of the extension naturally needed to be built at the same level as the original, and the initial inspection of the side doorway that was chosen to link the old building with the new works subsequently revealed an unusual feature of the redgum door sill. Running side to side, from one doorframe to the other, and fairly much along the middle of the sill, was a narrow strip of wood that was recessed into the top surface of the redgum. It was made of the same timber, but on closer inspection was obviously a seperate piece, neatly set into the sill proper and carefully levelled so the two surfaces were flush. Under general circumstances, and especially with the patina and wear of years, it was not obvious that another strip of timber was even there, as the two pieces were the same colour. But a scrape at the surface and a careful look revealed grains that didn’t quite match.

The recessed strip seemed an incongruous feature, although it wouldn’t really be deemed a “feature” either as it was made to blend in. As the project progressed, and the wall framing around the doorway was exposed, the sill seemed to be as solid a single piece of good redgum as when it was first installed — so the strip wasn’t hiding any repairs.

It was at this stage, when the ends of the sill became accessible, that the curiosity of the two volunteers who were left to do most of this work, retired locals and also cousins Bern and Pete Yoskin, were prompted into the action of levering up the recessed strip of timber to see what was under it. What was found was a chiselled-out channel neatly cut into the length of timber, right along the middle where the recessed strip had been, but with a finger-width of wood left in place at each end. Filling this space, near to capacity, was a line of ash.

Pete guessed straightaway its purpose, and that it was made more permanent by the carpentry they’d uncovered. He went to replace the wooden covering strip immediately, but Bern wasn’t so sure and thought they should wait, and maybe ask someone what they thought of the whole thing. He was for holding off re-fixing the covering strip for now, and wanted to just leave it sitting in place on top (it couldn’t be left off completely because the wind was up). He involuntarily looked towards the front doorstep. “I know what you’re wondering,” said Pete. “Is a block line there too…and what about under the windows.” Bern got up and Pete followed him to the doorway, where they quickly confirmed, with a simple scraping away of the build up that time had left on the front door sill, that a similar covering strip was installed there. They looked around, but both made no move to check any windows… it could be assumed that a line of ash was under every one in some form.

“It was obvious to Pete what the line of ash was for, and to me too, although Pete said he sort of suspected there might be something like that lurking in such an old building, and it had been in the back of his mind to keep an eye out all along. His dad, my Uncle Ben, was known to have been keen on the old practice and have some knowledge about it, and he had known of people who provided that sort of service when we were kids, although it dropped off later and had gone more ‘boutique’ and specialist in recent years — like now only ghost gum ash was used, because that seemed to ‘fit’ with the concept, although Uncle Ben used to say that in fact any old timber as a source for the ash would have done.

“When the ash blocking was revealed I really had only a slight hesitation about still going ahead with the renovation as it was planned already, and that we should ignore what had been put in place ash-wise, obviously years ago. Pete definitely had other ideas, and said no-one really knew at this stage what might end up happening if the blocking line was taken away. I got the feeling, from how he was talking, that he assumed the line was there to keep something out. But what if it was to keep something in? It would be hard to tell without getting someone who knows about the blocking practice to have a look, and that might take a while, and there’d been enough delays already.

“Later, when the situation had been explained to everyone who was involved with the extension project, it was decided to just keep on with building the add-on room, and the widening or not of the joining doorway would be decided later or when proper advice was had or it became clearer one way or another what we were dealing with here. That was just as well because later on, when the roof on the new section was up, a few volunteers slept over for a night or two in the new room, including us two. It wasn’t so much a ‘beyond the call of duty’ thing as a bit of an adventure, but also because time was getting away from this project if it was going to meet the bicentenary deadline, which was also the reason the road out to there was being resurfaced, so the drive over wasn’t exactly convenient. Anyway, as the time spent overnight ended up being absolutely ghost free, Pete ventured the opinion that the ash line was a keeping-in measure after all, since where we slept would have been outside the original house. That seemed pretty clear to everyone, and so the width of the doorway would have to stay the way it was, and the walls each side reinstated.

“Later on I got to thinking about this, and that the conclusion reached wasn’t really based on enough evidence. The ash blocking could still have been intended to keep things out, and it could have just been that one overnight stay didn’t reveal much. Was more time needed to really be sure? And who could say anyway?