- Published: 17 July 2017
- ISBN: 9780143786429
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $22.99
Down the Dirt Roads
I began my rural journey as a knotty-haired tomboy playing in the singing creeks of southern Tasmania with frogs, tadpoles, skinks, mud and rocks. I had holes ripped in the knees of my hand-me-down boy jeans and would spend hours gazing at tiny living creatures in clear, sparkling water that shone and warbled over moss- and algae-covered creek stones. The Tasmanian land at Runnymede that my father was involved in was undergoing rapid change due to the fact its new owner, a civil engineer, had brought in some big machines to sculpt the landscape from that of marsh and bushland into a farm.
Right from the start there was conflict within me. I was a girl who loved the fairy glades of ferny rocky creek beds that offered a backdrop to my imagination, and yet all around were the ravages of the dozer blades that had fallen ti-tree, wattle and peppermint gums, and dozed sags, ferns, tussocks and rocks. The remnants of a beautiful bushland were windrowed into long giant heaps and left to dry. Then months or years later, on an autumn day when the wind was right, we would gather as a family and watch the burning. I would see graceful huntsmen she-spiders scuttling from the smoke, watch silver-sided skinks panic from log to log and hope with all my heart that any possums, quolls or Tassie devils sleeping in the piles would escape the furnace. Around the heaps the soil had been disced by iron ploughs, then harrowed and then sown with firstly turnips and swede, then later with improved pasture species that were delivered in giant bags from seed companies, and mixed with hard little white lumps of superphosphate fertiliser that was mounded in small mountains in the paddock. Back then the government helped subsidise superphosphate so it was literally bought by the truckload.
I would look at the rocky, black clay soils and sometimes sandy loam patches that were now the home to a flock of Polwarth sheep on virgin pastures and wonder at it all. Through the innocent eyes of a child, I innately knew the brutality of the men’s action, but was reliant on the teachings of adults that this was a great and masterful thing. I would ask my father why they had to doze all the bush – why couldn’t they just graze the animals in grassy patches amongst the trees? I don’t think he ever saw my naïve viewpoint, but I was, after all, just a girl, whereas my brother was earmarked for greater things due to his status of older sibling and boy.
My father did try to bring clarity of mind to his blue-eyed, rather confused daughter by pointing out the young sapling stands of timber that the dozer driver had been instructed to leave for shelter for the sheep. Later, he would show me how wonderful it was that the turnips were edging their way out of the exposed soil and indicate how the sheep had nibbled the core of the turnip out so that a shell, like a half-buried skullcap, remained in the ground. The stench from sheep on a turnip crop is something to experience – like gas from an ancient swamp – and those farting ovines told me it wasn’t natural for the animal, nor this land. Maybe in England, but not here. Wandering off, I would go stand in the remaining shelter belts of young trees and shut my eyes and try to recapture what the landscape had looked like before the clearing, and picture the diverse plants the sheep would’ve preferred. Who would want to eat turnip all day long?
To me what was once a garden of Eden had now been ‘tidied up’, as Dad always put it, into a ‘farm’ that looked for all the world to me like a war zone – similar to the footage I’d seen as a toddler on the TV news when reports from Vietnam were beamed into our lounge room. Back then even in black-and-white I could visualise the colour of blood and the pallor of men at war. Amidst the remaining saplings I felt a similar war-torn grief from the land. I could see in my mind’s eye the landscape as it had been: the way the sunlight had filtered through treetops in a silver-and-gold sheen of light. In those sunbeam curtains in the bush, little moths and butterflies had flittered about and I’d be mesmerised in this world as the tussocks shone and lit spider webs drew me towards them in fascination. There were songs and secrets to be heard, whispered in the leaves of the gums above me as the breeze blew, because I was the kind of child who heard such things. But now all I saw were the pushed-up butts of logs, roots held in the air like clawed fingers reaching as if they were desperate to be rescued by the sky above. I would frown against the sun beating down on soil that was once a shaded, secretive and pristine landscape, and wonder at the adults’ choices.
Sometimes as we walked over the new paddocks, I noticed little waterways where I’d once met a blue-tongue lizard or a little brown frog were all but destroyed, dozed over, and the contours of the land reshaped to suit the investor farmer’s straight and tight fence lines. I’ve since been to those shelterbelts where I used to ride my pony. Little Tristan, patched with dun and white, would walk up to his knees in kangaroo grass, snatching at seed heads with his velvet muzzle. We’d jump the fallen logs the men never bothered to snig out, Tristan’s ears pricked, his black tail swishing. Now, over thirty years on, those same shelterbelt trees have just about all died. What hasn’t been cut for firewood are grey bones on the ground, and the native grasslands that used to grace the area have all but been grazed out and replaced with British varieties of pasture-like cocksfoot, clover, phalaris and rye. There are no lizards or frogs to meet nor even much birdsong left, save for a flock of introduced cockatoos that have taken over in great numbers, looking like white washing on a loaded line when they sit screeching in the few remaining long-dead ringbarked grey gums.
Even the marshland on the lower country, where as kids we would wade through floodwaters catching long snake-like shiny black eels, is now devoid of pin rushes due to the large drainage system created by big machines. With the recent weather patterns of low rainfall, the area barely floods and I sometimes wonder how those long-buried eels survive in the silted-up dam beds, if at all. Tenaciously the native hens, or bush chooks as we call them, still remain on the marshes in their army-green feather jackets and stalk about on their ready-to-run stick legs. But the canopied world that I would play in before the dozers came has long been destroyed. The land now has a same-same blandness of very little natural life. To those who hadn’t witnessed and felt the pulse of it over three decades ago, you wouldn’t notice its absence now. These days, to the everyday viewer, it would simply look like what we now term ‘farmland’.
Despite this early deep insight and conflict in my childhood mind that we were damaging the landscape, I came to embrace agriculture, adore sheep with a passion, and love farming with all my heart. My father was the son of a farm labourer. Through tenacity and sheer hard work, Dad made good and became a Hobart solicitor, specialising in company law. Eventually he put enough of his hard-earned dollars aside to buy a small farm to enjoy on weekends with us kids. But for me, weekends weren’t enough. I had a double dose of country in my veins, with my mum being the daughter of Derwent Valley farmers who had land connections running back to the Tasmanian highlands at Bothwell and the coast at Dunalley. I wanted more than weekends! I wanted to be immersed in the land right from the start. Agriculture, writing stories about it and studying it daily, was to be my only path.
But in watching the demise of soil health and in turn human health over the past thirty years, I’m finding that my old love for rural culture is strained. I mean no disrespect to my forebears, nor my father, nor the men and women who have toiled to clear this land, but I am hoping to reach for a new future for agriculture through new farming methods. I see a future that is balanced, one that honours the land in the way Indigenous cultures do, so there is a placement of reverence upon it. So that we can all survive as a species and have a planet that is thriving, not dying.
I can see agriculture splitting, like the way a road does . . . there are three routes: one is that of an old meandering highway like we still have here in Tasmania. It’s a road on which the traditional farming family travels. This is where the (usually male) farmer hands the land down to (most likely) the eldest son and they jokingly deem the son’s inheritance into farming as a form of ‘child abuse’. This is due to the lack of profits and perceived life of struggle on ever-declining soils, with rising costs like fuel, herbicide, pesticide and fertiliser (a post–World War II system that is based on using leftover chemical by-products from war and that is described as ‘best practice’ by Australian government advisors).
The second road, which is more like a six-lane highway, is the corporate system of agriculture, whereby technology, profit-driven commodity production and overseas investment drive methods of producing food that is not so much ‘food’ as it is filler for marketed ‘product’. It’s a fast-paced, sterile, straight-lined road to travel and those who don’t keep up with the speed of it fall away. Diversity in nature and healthy ecology have no place here, and even though you may find more women in this system, there is no sign of Mother Nature’s feminine principles of cyclical and slow. I’ve read articles that claim that in Australia we are now producing oranges that contain zero vitamin C due to farming practices that are more concerned with profit than human health. Nutrition in food produced in this autobahn-style of farming has been steadily in decline since the 1950s so that when you shop in the fruit-and-vegie section of the major supermarkets, you may be shortchanging your body on much-needed vitamins and minerals, even though you think you are making a healthy choice. In this system we pay supermarkets cents per kilo, not cents per bodily goodness, and it’s costing us dearly.
The final road – the road I want to travel down and the road I want to take you down – is the dirt one. The road less travelled. Down this road are the slower travelling methods of farming that will nurture clear-flowing waters that have been filtered by healthy, fecund, breathing soils that underpin a multi-layered farming system. Methods that not only produce chemical-free, nutrition-filled food, but that embrace ecosystems as a whole and build human communities on farms and in rural townships. In these systems there’s not only room for women, but also children. And there’s also room for food infused with love. What could be healthier?
I was raised in a household where meals were cooked and presented to the breadwinning man at the head of the table, business shirts were ironed as stiff as his briefcase for him, and children were silenced and shut away in their rooms at news time. It was all in order to serve the man of the house. His peace and happiness was paramount. It was classic fifties stuff that carried through into the late sixties when I was born. I learned early that those women not wearing aprons, and the ones who were young and pretty enough, were objects for men’s sexual enjoyment. As a six-year-old, hidden behind the couch, I saw enough on the TV of Benny Hill chasing half-naked women and Alvin Purple’s sexist soft porn to find out where I stood in the world as female. It was not a good place.
With an older brother who had a different relationship with my dad, gender stereotyping hit me hard and early. They share a language seeded around masculine, knock-on-wood ‘real’ world things like share portfolios and company law. It’s a language some women can learn, but I’ve never wanted to. My reality innately had those extra points on the compass.
What was real and tangible to me was possibly airy-fairy stuff to them. Right from the beginning, I was never going to be the girl I was expected to be. I was never going to be a lawyer or a doctor type. I couldn’t do numbers to save myself. I was never going to make a Hobart society wife either. I didn’t like dolls or dresses. Instead I drifted with clouds and dandelion seeds blown in the wind. I was distracted by colour and light. I shrank into a shell of terror from the outside world and emerged in glowing light in my inner world, knowing I was made of the Divine. I conversed with fairies and angels. I liked cowboys and Indians and torn jeans. Along with my complexities, I was a grumbly tomboy in a world where pretty, demure, compromising girls were rewarded. Adding to that I was born a creative, and dubbed ‘a mad writer like your grandmother’. Still, despite feeling a fringe-dweller to my own family, I acknowledge the love in which I was raised. It was love made jagged by the era, but it was love nonetheless.
As I fly back in time and hover over that clearing that I witnessed as a child, I know in my heart that if a woman had been in charge of converting that land into a farm, she would have gone about it vastly differently. The landscape’s beauty and diversity would’ve been retained, and all the creatures would’ve got to share in some way.
When I found myself at the age of forty-one, without the paternal support I craved trying to escape a toxic marriage, I sought the refuge of a single room on my friend’s farm next door. Crammed into one bed with my kids, I realised the depth of my lack of self-worth. I was ill equipped to reason with the blokes who had ousted me and negotiate a better way forward with them. In my world, women had been conditioned to put up and shut up. So I did. I gave in and walked away with nothing. That’s what a woman does when their core belief is ‘I am not worthy’.