How Old is Old?

Once there was a young wombat named Benson who lived in a nice, tidy wombat hole with his mother and his two aunts, Lillibet and Moss.

Benson was helping his Nanna make lunch. She was kneading the dough for the pizza, folding and pushing and turning it, and Benson was cutting the capsicum up very carefully into flower shapes.

Benson asked, “How old are you, Nanna?”

Nanna laughed. “Sometimes I feel as old as the hills,” she said.

“But how old are you?” Benson said.

“I’m older than you and your mother put together,” Nanna said.

“That must be really really old,” Benson said.

Nanna said, “It depends what you mean by old.” She shaped the pizza dough into a soft round ball, gave it a pat and put it in a warm place with a tea towel over it. “Let’s go for a walk while we’re waiting for the dough to rise,” she said to Benson. “I want to show you something.”

They went down to the creek that ran down the back of Nanna’s place. Nanna picked up a little brown pebble and put it in Benson’s hand. Then she picked up some warm dry sand from the bank of the creek, and poured it into his other hand.

“Did you know that all those grains of sand were once pebbles like this one?” she said. “It takes years and years of being rubbed and tumbled over and over by the water in the creek to turn it into sand.” Benson felt how hard the pebble was in his hand. He tried to imagine how long it would take to wear it down into sand.

Nanna said, “And once, this pebble was a bigger stone, and before that it was a bigger rock. Think about how old that pebble must be.”

She took the pebble and put it back in the creek, Benson poured the sand back onto the bank.

They walked on a little further, till they got to a place where there was an old tree stump. “See this tree stump?” Nanna said. “Long, long ago, people came and sawed this tree down and took it away, but they left the stump behind.” It was so big that they could both climb onto it.

“See all these rings?” Nanna said, pointing at the top of the stump. “These rings tell the story of the tree’s life. You can see the good years, where there was plenty of water and the tree grew well, and hard years when there was no rain.”

She took Benson’s hand and put his finger on one of the rings in the tree’s trunk. “From here to here is about one wombat’s life-time,” she said.

Benson measured the distance between the rings with his fingers, and tried to imagine how long it would take a tree to grow that much. Just as long as it would take a baby wombat to grow up. He tried to count how many rings there were. “That many wombats!” he said.

Nanna said, “You can see this tree has been here for a long, long time. Just imagine how old it must be.”

She took him further along the creek, to where they could see the hillside beyond the trees. “You see the rocks that the hill is made of? Once a long time ago – a really long time ago – this whole land was under the sea. Sometimes you can even find the prints of shells and sea creatures inside the rocks. All these rocks were just sand at the bottom of the sea. Then as time went on, the sand was pressed down and compressed and gradually got harder and turned into rock. Can you imagine how old these rocks must be?”

Benson’s imagination had run out. He flopped down on the ground and stared at the sky. “My mind is tired,” he said.

Nanna smiled. She said, “Let’s go home. It’s time to roll out the dough and make the pizza.”

They went back to Nanna’s place and made pizza. The dough was perfectly risen, soft and spongy. Nanna rolled it out into a flat circle while Benson cut up the tomatoes. Nanna picked spinach and basil from the garden and they put everything on the pizza with the capsicum, and put it in the oven.

They ate the pizza as soon as it came out of the oven. Benson couldn’t remember anything ever tasting as good.

When his mother came to pick him up, she said, “I hope you didn’t tire Nanna out. She’s not as young as she used to be.”

Benson said, “Nanna’s not old.” He thought of trees and rocks and sand. “She’s not old at all.”

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