It is highly possible that I came to the bush at a time when I was ready to settle into myself. Its lack of frippery opened me up like a Y incision and forced me to look inside. Nature does that. If I had not have been ready for the sort of self-examination that space and solitude bring, I quite easily could have hated it. And still, there were times when I did. Big sky, wide streets and the small minds in open sight—they’re hidden in the city—could be a prison without choices.
So that is my disclaimer. For me, the country is a person, wrapped in a landscape, tied with a plain piece of string because anything thing else would be a bloody waste. And extricating the bush from the person is a near impossible task.
Like all memory, mine is reliably dodgy. When I look back over the past 20 years, I see the good bits of a life in rural Australia. I like the view from here. I see beauty in the landscape, the tool shed, a number-eight fencing knot to join two bits of wire. I have learned to meditate on the sound of a blowfly (though I hate the little ones that drill up your nose). I love the thrift of a home-welded tool stand made from plough discs. I love the rough-hewn century-old eucalyptus log that holds up the shearing shed like a circus tent. I love downward dog in the shearers’ huts.
‘I have noticed that writers who romanticise the Outback or are able to appreciate its beauty usually didn’t grow up in it,’ Kate Jennings wrote in an essay on the re-release of Wake in Fright, Australia’s movie version of Deliverance. Wake in Fright was the antidote to the bush legend.
Jennings and her brother Dare, the creator of Mambo and Deus Ex Machina, did grow up in the bush. She says it was the thing that drove them to succeed, the flea-bitten mutt snapping at their heels, biding their time for a golden ticket that would take them out of the paddocks and into the open arms of the city. Jennings quotes the chef Mark Best. ‘The country’s so fucking boring. The attitudes, the outlook, the acceptance, the crap it delivers; that banality. Everyone thinks there’s this sort of Arcadia out there, but go ask people why everyone’s bloody killing themselves.’
The problem with arguments about the place or substance or worth of rural Australia and its people is that it is all so black and white. It always descends into a cartoon-style fight over who wins—city or country—and I’ll admit I have indulged in a bit of that myself.
But Jennings is right. I am a romantic. It is part-optimism, part-survival mechanism. Shape-shifting is a necessary skill often found in the children of migrants. I grew up in various parts of Sydney, though my formative teenage years were spent climbing out the window of a mock white Spanish three-bedroom project home in northern suburbia. We backed on to bush, spent time playing in it, watched it burn a few times but the capital B bush did not figure in my imagination at all. Though now I can see the cultural tentacles of its influence in Anglo side of my family, mostly in their sense of humour.
My first country excursions could well have been to another shore. I was travelling with friends, it was summer and someone in front threw a cigarette butt out the window. Idiots, said my friend and flashed his lights at the fool. The black of the paddock and the bright car lights seemed to create the destination, an orange dirt driveway lined with black ironbarks, leaves the colour of celadon.
The house had a faded glory and as I moved into it I discovered it was a state that extended across a rural society. The otherworldliness of the farm at once drew me in. Before this, I had lived in many buildings, some of them just about as old as Sydney’s white settlement, but here it is as if the mud walls in the old pise house had grown up out of the ground and I guess they had. Rammed earth was what they had so rammed earth is what they used. The building is only a century old but I understood Don Watson when I read The Bush. ‘The sense of the house and the farm and the people was that they had always been there.’
In those early days it felt like everything was old, when by Indigenous standards it was a flit of wren’s wing. Tradition was rooted like the huge eucalypts, weather-scarred but triumphing all the same. And conservative. As it was. As it has always been. There was a place for everything. Nuts in a milk tin. Bolts in the glass jar. Ideas over there and we will deal with them when the hard work of harvest is finished.
Early gatherings were warm but formulaic, unfolding as they had for hundreds of years. Conversation confounded me with its contradictions. It was the mid 1990s. Paul Keating had just wrestled native title legislation through parliament, leaving my dinner companions anguishing over what it meant for rural Australia. Keating was the anti-Christ. The 1996 Wik judgment found pastoral leases and native title could coexist but there was an animosity towards Indigenous people in some parts, which to my ears was out of all proportion. Pauline Hanson gave her maiden speech in September 1996, when I was pregnant with my first child, but I was already familiar with the sentiment. I knew that a section of Australia felt disadvantaged, unappreciated and left behind. Hanson’s message left rural discontent as jagged and exposed as a jam tin.
It jarred with the farmer culture I saw; people who are emotionally attached to land; people who name paddocks after the remembered events; people who can cite seasonal changes to their land and readily identify the salt patch, the echidna crossing, the favourite terrain of the local hawk; and people who are able to understand their own connection to country but fail to recognise others. Of course it wasn’t everyone. Of course, some of it was fear of the meaning of the Mabo judgment. For me, this remains the great dichotomy of the bush. Where I see common ground, others see a rabbit-proof fence.
In those early days, I took it to heart. But the best advice came from a woman who grew up in the country. ‘It’s all about common ground,’ she said. ‘Sometimes the only thing you share is a cake recipe. And that’s okay.’ Another lesson. I have learned I don’t need everyone to think like me. And the people I truly appreciate are the ones who feel they don’t need to persuade me to think the way they do.
Community built slowly. A shared moment while children played at a makeshift playground in a dusty tennis club washed white with hard sun. Tea in styrofoam cups spilt among dandelions as a hot wind heralded harvest. Playdough and lives squeezed together by fat toddler fingers. More common ground in teenage lives spent in familiar places, a favourite book or a dumb joke over a leaky nappy. The first day of school, the death of a town’s child and a tear, welling and rolling down a freckled face. In any community, these are events that bind you together. I don’t need to see others every day. I know their lives.
That was inside. Outside, my narrow experience exploded. The natural world crept into my awareness. The careless death or fortuitous survival of lambs. The unhappy accident of a heifer caught in a boggy creek. The unlikely event of a mob reproducing themselves at 100 per cent. (How is that possible in such a treacherous world?) The eye of a sheep plucked out and swallowed by a waiting crow as it lay stricken but still squirming. The smell of a stillborn lamb, undiscovered. These are the things I had not witnessed in a city childhood. The change of physical space moving from a three-metre-wide city terrace to thousands of acres in relative isolation fired neurons that seemed to draw the universe inside my head. While I had been exposed to my share in the built world, in my late twenties I had never given much thought to nature. And here it was, red in tooth and claw.
Tim Winton writes in his recent memoir, Island Home, ‘For someone brought up with a modernist outlook, it’s hard to swallow the idea that we belong to nature, tougher still to be owned by time.’ That concept was at the root of my confusion and wonder, the feeling that, stripped back to the bare bones, we do belong to the earth. A friend’s four-year-old daughter visited and asked, ‘Who knocked all the houses down?’ Once she pointed it out, it seemed completely obvious.
At first the landscape appeals only when it wears green. The sort of storybook green that you see in the English countryside or in the movies. Then, when I get my eye in, I prefer the transitions in colour and landscape, the elbow bend of a creek, the soft wheat-coloured head of phalaris grass, the cottony heads of bulrushes on the creek. Even the heartbreaking red dirt and bones of drought has a sort of gothic beauty to it. Once you get your eye in. The landscape teaches me observation is all.
There is nothing new in agrarianism. It thrives not only in the bush but in the hearts of city customers who pay a premium to know the story of the pig that becomes their bacon. It lives on in the dreams of tree changers who buy their little block, plant some fruit trees and chip away at the thistles until it loses its appeal. It lives on in the support for the Lock the Gate movement, which trades on the idea of an inherent moral value in farming and producing food.
In the hierarchy of needs, everybody needs food and shelter. Food gives a sense of self-worth to a farmer that I have not often identified in other small business people. My father-in-law—whom I never met—used to remark on the decline of people who make and produce things. ‘People can’t survive doing other people’s washing forever,’ he used to tell his children. There is a view that service industries are less meaningful, especially financial service industries. There is a biblical view of banks—as usurers—because everybody knows skimming a fee off a million accounts is not contributing. Soft hands of office workers are remarked on. If you have never earned a callous, you cannot claim to have worked.
‘Some of us primary producers, us farmers and authors are going round to watch them evict a banker,’ writes Les Murray in his piss-taking poem ‘The Rollover’. ‘It’ll be sad. I hate it when the toddlers and wives are out beside the fence, crying …’ He wrote that after the credit crunch of the late eighties and the recession in the early nineties.
City businesses may have wealth and success, but there is a quiet confidence about feeding a corner of the world that is difficult to pin down. Sometimes it borders on smugness. While city small business owners may be financially independent, the nature of a farmer’s work with animals, dirt and machinery produces a special sense of pride in their practical capacity. Physicality counts for a lot.
‘Put your arse to anchor,’ my grandmother used to say. The bastards just cannot sit down.
Self-worth is also linked to independence. The idea that within the boundaries of their country—and that’s what they call it—they are in control. Weather may make or ruin you, commodity markets can spit in your face but most other decisions are yours to control. And each does it their own way, for it is poor form to tell a person how to run their farm. ‘An independent man was more of a man than a man on wages,’ writes Watson in The Bush:
His wife was more of a woman and led more of a life for being married to such a man. A man on wages was at another’s beck and call; he lived in turmoil, between his master’s approval and the bidding of his own spirit. He was not a natural being but a social one. He lived life trying to please other men; an independent man need please only himself and his Maker.
This view is changing, as their sons and daughters get far richer in service industries and banks than their farming parents. Good work if you can get it, they might say as offspring return with stuffed hindquarters trotting two inches above the ground like a young colt. It’s okay for me and mine but deep down, the culture of contempt remains.
If in doubt, research. I chased the concepts of my new world down burrows and blind alleys. I am compelled to buy a horse—pushing aside my one and only riding experience, which ended in a bad fall. If I were to take on this life, I would straddle it, wind my fingers through its mane and run with it. But the horse rode me. She is my mirror, an instinctive therapist smelling of earth and hay. She could bring my state of composure undone in a heartbeat. She knows my inner world like no-one else, without language but with a deep knowledge that stretches back to a primitive survival.
The bush legend remains embedded in politics, the media and parts of the population. It lives in advertising jingles and sporting ceremonies but it is also fair to say the two thirds of Australians who live in our major cities retain a love-hate relationship with rural people and it goes both ways. Many urban people like the idea of the bush but disregard the views that come out of it. We are neither as good or as bad as some people make out.
It is reflected in the place of the rural and regional writers who loom large in the nation’s consciousness and in international awards. Richard Flanagan, who won the Man Booker prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, said recently he was terrified when he struck his first crowd in London at 22. Flanagan grew up in a small town in Tasmania. When he returned recently to his childhood home to film a documentary, he asked permission to look around. With a certain country style, the new owner advised the Booker Prize winner he could fuck off.
Les Murray wrote Subhuman Redneck Poems in 1996—not coincidentally the year Pauline Hanson was elected to federal parliament. ‘It’s a period in which the elites have decided to despise the Australian,’ he told journalist Trent Dalton more recently:
You know it well when you live in the country. You are despised by the city’s intellectual classes. The only licensed bush person is an Aborigine. It’s been much more pronounced in the last 40 years. I always get the feeling there’s something fake about it. Then when I hear the Australian elites going on about the Anzac, I feel like throwing up. I don’t believe a word of it.
Tim Winton has also described the early reaction to his work, writing as he does from and of regional Australia in his new memoir, Island Home. ‘The metropolitan contempt for regional people and their language was undisguised,’ he writes of the first reviews of Cloudstreet.
We hate what we fear. I heard that in a ghost story once. I have lived racial divides and cultural divides. Whichever camp I stand in, I feel compelled to stand up for the other. But rural communities are to me now as family are at Christmas time. At times they shit me to tears (and I them) but they are mine to defend.
In a city suburb you tend to mix with the same demographic. People around you have similar incomes, similar views. You can comfort yourself that the whole world revolves around your patch. Nature and a small town woke me up from that complacency. A small town inversely increased my contact with many different people, people with small world views, people with expansive world views. Very poor people, very rich people. Inventors. Poets who did not get past year 9. Water diviners. Scientists. Ghost busters. Dabblers and battlers. Diversity in most things except race.
Curiosity and children took me beyond the natural conundrums and into the towns and villages. I wanted to examine the stratum of rural life, the why, the wherefore and from whence. Once again I am in a minority, considering that rural people now constitute only 30 per cent of Australia’s population. I worked at the local newspaper and studied rural Australia. It led me to historian Russel Ward, whose work The Australian Legend continued the national sport of agonising about our identity. Ward had many critics but in his study of Australian lore I recognised a number of characteristics, both in my new surroundings and in my Anglo family, including the hard swearing and deep drinking. According to Ward, he—and the legend revolves around ‘he’—is a ‘hard case’
sceptical about the value of religion and of intellectual and cultural pursuits generally. He believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but, at least in principle, probably a good deal better and so he is a great knocker of eminent people, unless, as in the case of his sporting heroes, they are distinguished by physical prowess.
Ward goes on. Fiercely independent, rough and ready, the legendary Australian is quick to decry affectation, hates authority, sticks to his mates through thick and thin. Ward did not write the legend as a great truth. He considered it a ‘self-image’ drawn largely from bush poetry and the lives of nomadic white rural workers rather the true Australian identity. Whatever that is.
My great-grandfather was a racing writer. Originally from South Australia, Cliff Graves wrote for Smiths Weekly before Frank Packer lured him to the Telegraph. He was an eccentric, a man who would put an empty rum bottle on its side to get the last drop out. He rose in the dark to go out to the track—not far from the old house in Randwick. He put seven pencils in his top pocket, bent over to tie up his shoes and then cursed them as the seven harlots of Jerusalem—every morning. Every evening he gathered a line-up of large and small stones on his windowsill. They were his cat stones and dog stones, ready to pelt any animal that dared to make a noise after 6 pm. He had much advice for the family, including: ‘Those whom the gods seek to destroy first turn to rock fishing.’ Cliff had a knack for language. In an era when mixed marriages were a reason to stare, he accepted his little brown great-grandchildren with unconditional love.
His daughter, my grandmother, was the centre of my childhood. In her younger days she had been a Berlei model with a bawdy mouth. The mouth stayed. I spent great lumps of my school holidays with her, walking down for the daily shop in Coogee at a time when there was still a fruit-barrow man called Mr Ed. They would chew over the events of the day as he swung a handful of beans inside a paper bag to give it two little ears. The conversation always ended in the same way. ‘Betty,’ he said, ‘you can’t educate mugs.’ We walked past the pub, where the old blokes held up the bar at 10 am. ‘Look at ’em,’ she would say. ‘Heads on ’em like mice.’ On the odd occasion, posh visitors came for afternoon tea. She served it in the Royal Doulton saved for good. In the kitchen she winked as she poured sherry into her cup. ‘No milk for me,’ she would say when offered some. ‘I like mine black.’ When we locked ourselves out of our flat down the road, she came down dressed as a private detective with a bone-handled butter knife in her inside pocket. In her late fifties, she straddled the balustrade, reached the sash window and slipped the knife through the gap to open the lock. She approached everything in life with style and defiance, except a loveless marriage. Like most of her generation, she was stuck like a dingo in trap. I thought she might gnaw her foot off, but in the end it sucked the life out of her. Like traps do.
I see their echoes in the bush.
Nan had a few cupboards of memories. The farm had sheds full. Old furniture is not discarded or sold, it is stored just in case. The shearers huts were a compulsory part of agricultural industrial relations and ratting through them with young children is a delight. Shearers come out for the day now, although they do stay over in places further west of us. These days only swallows nest in the open rooms and spray the brown Masonite with shit and feathers. Basket-woven cribs are stacked with old leather-bound farm books in perfect copperplate. Closed rooms stand still with shearers cots made with cyclone wire bases and thin ticking mattresses that smell of dust and sweat and kapok. Makeshift bedside tables are made from palings ripped from stamped crates of Liddell’s sheep dip. Each room gets four coat hooks—two per shearer. Best not go overboard. Bare floorboards are untreated cypress pine. Cookie’s kitchenware is still contained in a mouse-proof steel cupboard. A diet of mutton and scones lingers. There are piles of enamel dishes like the ones used for my grandmother’s baked custards and bread and butter puddings. Sydney cafés love those dishes now. Green glass butter dishes and hand beaters take me back to my grandmother’s egg flips, sprinkled with cinnamon and delivered to her ailing mother-in-law who said of her daughter-in-law, ‘She will never come to any good.’ Yet it was her daughter-in-law who nursed her at the end of her life. I hear stories of Cookie, a fat sweating man in a stained white T-shirt with a drinking problem and a burning fag on his bottom lip. It might be iconic if it weren’t unvarnished fact.
After some negotiation, I set into the huts to make a yoga studio. No doubt people in town think I’m a wanker. It’s a fair cop. In between school bus trips, stories, cake stalls and chores, I paint and strip and sand and varnish like a mad woman. My classes move from the cold school hall to the cold shearers huts. It is freezing except when it’s hot. Contract shearers and crutchers creep over at smoko to look through the windows. ‘What’s he building in there,’ sang Tom Waits while I painted. ‘He’s hiding something from the rest of us … He’s all to himself … I think I know why.’ The building creaks and groans to accommodate the new tenant making peace with landscape and life. An old goanna watches from the big gum out the back, in between sorties to the long drop dunny to swallow squealing rabbit kittens.
Meditation on a fact. Discomfort is good. This is the farmer’s secret. What I chase through years of yoga, meditation and long teeth, the farmer has already: equanimity. If the track is paved with low-hanging fruit, if the seasons are always with you, if the machinery never breaks, if the prize ram doesn’t find a special way to die, if the pipe doesn’t burst in summer or freeze in winter, how will you know when times are good? As I learn to meditate on the thought: this too shall pass, nature determines whether the crops will suffer fire, frost, hail or a bumper season. Drought, increased by climate change, sits perusing the pages of every farm budget like the death’s head at the feast. Maybe it is not just farming. Maybe it is the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune anywhere. Farming just happens to be where I learned a measure of it. It is what Richard Flanagan saw in his father Arch, a prisoner of war, when the son told the old man he had won a Rhodes scholarship. Arch did not lift his head from chopping wood to say, ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same.’ Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s never as bad or as good as you might think. Pessimism and optimism are two sides of the same coin in the bush. It is the ultimate act of optimism to spend a fortune sowing a crop and it is tempered by a little voice in the dark recesses that says this could all turn to shit in a heartbeat.
Soda is a blue kelpie with green eyes. Mother of Basil, grandmother of Banjo. The matriarch is dying. She was trained by a station hand with a knack for sheep dogs. When she was a pup, he spent patient time with her in the yards, with a small mob of quiet sheep. Dog people all say it takes time, as it does with any learning. Soda soon became the star of the outfit. She had that quiet intelligence and capacity to sit back and wait—an attribute necessary in working dogs and humans. Only push when absolutely necessary. She has all the attributes of a fine government whip. Soda has schooled many station hands. The first time I tried, sheep had got over the ramp on the road. The farmer, who was away, asked me to take Soda up. She’ll bring them in, he said, knowing his poor wife would not have a clue. As if it were ever going to be that easy. A neighbour helped me get them through the ramp but as I commanded Soda to ‘go out’, she started but turned around and questioned my resolve. I changed my delivery, lowering my voice, subconsciously mimicking her master, letting the command fall out of the side of my mouth. It didn’t work and eventually, concluding that she was wasting her time, she hopped back in the ute, leaving me standing there like a dickhead. You can’t help some people.
Now she is dying. She is 13 or so. Her ear is at half mast, due to a tumour. She has lost weight and she sniffs the breeze on the southern side of the shed. She is deaf and mostly blind but seems happy enough. The vet says she has cancer. When things get bad, she takes a walk out with her master and then she is gone.
Another conundrum. How can one animal mean so much and thousands mean so little? Like people we love, we invest so much in the animals we know while assuming others are dumb. Of our loves, their nuance, their personality, the little habits picked up over a lifetime seem so idiosyncratic that no other animal will ever show the same set. Horses too—I’ve never met one the same as the last. And if horses have different traits and personalities, so do other animals. The millions. It doesn’t pay to ask too many questions in this line of work.
There is an old French film, Too Beautiful for You, which stars Gerard Depardieu as a car salesman who has an affair with his secretary. The wife is beautiful, elegant and clever. The secretary is motherly, tending towards middle age with all the comfort that entails. Sometimes I wonder whether the beauty of the natural world pushes me towards politics, to gather a bit of yang for the yin in my other life. Half of my year, I am holed up in a room in Canberra and when I return, it’s the smell that hits me first, the smell of grass, dirt and manure. If I’m lucky, rain. The smell irons out the daily nit-pickery that occurs in the other half of my world, where tearing holes and taking stands and regular outrages are the stuff of misplaced heroism and traffic.
This story does not represent rural Australia. It represents my rural Australia because no town, no farmer, no townie, no local ecology is the same as any other. And yet we project this weight of expectation onto the bush to fulfil some strange need in the national imagination.
Michelle Payne carried this weight across the line on Melbourne Cup day. Wonderful enough for a country horse at 100 to 1 to win, let alone a ‘girl’ from bum crack nowhere. Much like Flanagan’s dad, as the national cheer went up for the youngest of ten, Payne’s dad could not be found after the race. ‘He’s probably on the lawnmower,’ she surmised. Watched the race and then hopped on the mower. Triumph. Disaster. Just the same.
Payne provided a story of the little Aussie battler and if you follow the trope you can find your way down a dirt track to any country town in Australia. The beautiful irony was the bush legend was overwhelmingly male. And here was Payne rewriting the bush legend to tell them all to get stuffed. So here is the kicker.
I have a sneaking suspicion the future of the bush is female. At least, its power lies with women and their connectedness. In the years that inspired the bush poets and the academics, women were isolated and without power. Now they are driving communities, using social media, crowd-funding initiatives, starting businesses, teaching children, acknowledging climate change while male leaders wring their hands, not wanting to offend.
Before this life, I never understood the emotionally jarring force of an easterly. I learned forgiveness from the noughties drought. The farmer took a photo from the same vantage point every month, from thin feed to bare dirt, recording the same scene as paddocks blew. When the seasons turned, the earth recovered and I could see why, if emotion was all you had, you may believe you could do anything to the planet and it would forgive you.