Merriwa is a pretty little town in the Upper Hunter Valley, founded in the early 19th Century, once a bustling center that provided services for agriculture in the area which was dominated by sheep and wool processing. The old depot next to the rail line that used to transport bales of wool and bushels of wheat to market was long defunct, but had been restored by devoted citizens, smartened up by fresh paint and flowers on the platform. The main street was lined with the typical small town businesses – a local bakery, a cafe that served flat whites and espressos and a visitors information center.
In Australia, just about every single little speck on the map has an info center where visitors can get free maps, brochures on accommodation, info on various area attractions, and so on. But the Merriwa center had a bit extra, Outside the center, attached to the side wall of the neighboring Iron Bark Cafe, a sculpture of corrugated steel depicting oxen pulling a cart full of wool bales to market. Inside, a huge room full of long tables placed end to end, displaying a nearly infinite variety of hand-made crafts. Quality: Excellent. Taste: Varied. Turned wooden bowls and lamp bases, felted wool, knitted sweaters and singlets and scarves and hats, beaded jewelry – and embroidery. Embroidered tea towels, hand towels, bath towels, finger-tip towels, baby bonnets, baby towels, crib bumpers, onesies, singlets, little girls’ dresses, stuffed animals, soft fabric books, boxer shorts, baby booties, blankets, table runners, place mats, napkin rings, baby quilts, face cloths, a lamp shade, gum boots, tuna cans … Okay, I didn’t see any gum boots. But there could have been. I kept moving, nervous that if I stood still, I was in danger of being embroidered.
On the other side of the expanse of crafts was a museum dedicated to the agricultural implements of days past. There was a collection of old tractors, of which I took several photographs for my father who collects models of these things and likes to go pet tractors in captivity across the U.S. There was also a model of a sheering platform, complete with some of the canvas bags that made up bales of wool, each one with a stamp unique to the station – sort of like the brands in the western U.S. I noticed that there weren’t any sort of interpretive placards for those of us who don’t know much about sheep shearing and wool processing. Maybe it’s just assumed that everybody in Australia does?
Once finished at the visitors center, we were off to visit friends of M. to have homemade pumpkin soup and see some marsupials that they happened to be nursing. They had three wombats – sizes small, medium and large – every one of them looking like they needed a pedicure. Serious claws. Two adolescent kangaroos were out on the back deck, and I was told that it was okay to go check them out. Skittish little things, but they probably thought I was a strange looking kangaroo.
There was another recuperating guest, but I didn’t notice him right away, even though I walked right by him. In the dining room, on the drawer pull of a hutch, hung a shopping bag – just a simple cloth shopping bag, the kind that grocery stores sell for a dollar or businesses give away as promotional items. The bag looked lumpy, like it was full of apples, or maybe potatoes. When I stepped back inside after visiting the two young ones out on the back deck, I could have sworn that the bag moved. Stopped in my tracks, I looked over at the nursemaids, who were looking at me.
Me: Did that just move? That bag?
Me: Why did that just move?
She: Because there’s something in there.
Me: What is the something that’s in there?
She walked over and gently removed the bag from the knob and carried it out to the deck. Sitting down in a chair, she pulled a wiggly something wrapped up in an old sweatshirt out onto her lap. Out popped a little ‘roo by the name of Jack. Turns out that the shopping bag and sweatshirt were a substitute for mama kanga’s pouch. This little one was an orphan with a dislocated foot – problematic for a species whose form of locomotion is hopping.
So I sat and watched this woman mother the little orphaned one, getting him a clean pouch, wrapping him up in a clean snuggly, and cleaning him up. He was suffering from thrush, a yeast infection, and while we talked, she just kept cleaning him and rubbing him. In humans, thrush is caused by an imbalance in the system that allows yeast to overcome the beneficial bacteria that keeps it in check; in baby ‘roos, it’s caused by stress. She pointed out that the younger an animal is when it’s found, the more immune-compromised it can be. The flip side is that young animals tend to be more trusting since they haven’t yet been entirely acclimated to the natural environment. Once Jack was cleaned up, yummies were served – in this case, colostrum, since baby kangaroos get colostrum the entire time they’re in the pouch, about 15 months.
As we chatted about wild critters and the care and feeding thereof, one of the nursemaids pointed out that you can buy a baby kangaroo or a wallaby dressed up in a little tutu in the U.S. the general tone of this comment was reproachful. Once again, I was put in the position of having to answer for my country. It’s a damn big country (yes, the Lower 48 alone are bigger than Australia, you guys) and I’m getting tired of having to answer for all the idiots over there. After all, I’m sure that there are NO idiots in Australia. And, when I hear things like that, I’m never sure if I am supposed to apologize or explain … or if the people relaying the information are saying it to show me how awful my country is: “Oh, good! Here’s an American! We can vent all our shit on her, tell her in an indirect way how much her country sucks!” Or maybe I’m just sensitive. I pointed out that it’s a good thing that I’m not one of those people, and that it’s sad that there are individuals all over the world who are intent on having wild animals as pets, whether they should or not. They had to conceded this point, and the conversation moved on to other topics.
I learned a bit from the surrogate ‘roo mum. For example, you can tell the health of a ‘roo by looking at the circumference of the base of its tail. It should be nice and thick. Female kangaroos can choose when to develop an embryo after they are fertilized.
(Digression Alert: Wouldn’t that be nice? Probably solve a lot of unwed mother issues in the U.S. Oh, wait. Then the religious right would be busy telling women when they could choose to develop an embryo. Or when to get fertilized in the first place. Oh, wait. The Catholic Church already does that. And they’d probably be saying that personhood starts at the moment of fertilization, even before the embryo or no embryo. Oh, wait, they already do that, too. Never mind. See? I can be critical of my country – but you can’t.)
Back to interesting kangaroo info. If a male kangaroo coughs when confronted by another male, it’s a sign of submission. Same if they’ve been fighting. A cough means “uncle.” When a male kangaroo fights, he not only boxes with his forelegs, but also leans back on his tail to kick with his hind legs. The sharpness of his claws and force of the blow can eviscerate his opponent. Some of these things I learned from a fascinating documentary called “Faces in the Mob.” (FYI: A bunch of kangaroos is called a mob.) The film was produced by the University of New England, one of the several schools in Armidale, NSW, where I spent time HelpEx-ing. For anyone planning a trip to Australia, it’s worth a look. Even if you’re not coming to Australia, it’s still worth viewing.
In general, most animals that end up in care have been injured by cars. Kangaroos jump out across the road much like deer do in North America. Wombats do the same thing, although sometimes they wander out because they’ve gone blind from mange. (Foxes, a non-native species, carry mange, next in wombat dens, wombats get infected and go blind, wander out on the road, and get hit. Mange can be treated, but since the wombat doesn’t develop immunity, it can get infected again.) M. stops to pull hit ‘roos off the road, and always checks to see if there’s a live joey that can be saved in the pouch. One night, I helped drag a big male off the road by his tail. I’ll admit, I didn’t want to touch it, but wanted to see it up close. Big guy. Heavy. I admit that M. did most of the work. Another night, she came back with a fetal joey that she found in the pouch of a dead female. It had died, too, a furless pink-skinned little alien thing.
We headed back to the stud to see if any other fat ladies had popped yet. In a few days, I would head off to Sydney to see if I could extend my visa and not have to leave the country every 90 days.
NOTE: For some reason the wonderful upgrade that WordPress did recently has taken away my toolbar, so I don’t have the little button to add a link. I had several ready concerning Carol Heuchan, Claire Hayes, Waler horses, etc. I’ll try to add them in the future!)
One thing that my host M. truly understood was the “Exchange” part of Help Exchange. At every turn, I was brought along to visit friends, to attend functions, even to suggest events which I’d like to attend. In fact, when I got there, she already had an extra ticket to Bush Poetry Night with Carol Heuchan, and musical guest Claire Hayes. (By the way, this wasn’t purchased for me, per se – it was purchased for the current WWOOF-er or HelpEx-er.) Soup and damper (that’s a sort of bread roll) were served, as well as desserts, so attendees were instructed to bring their own beverages and nibbles.
The event was held Baerami Memorial School of Arts Hall, a country hall that stood at a crossroads a few kilometers from the stud. We had driven by it before – a white clapboard-sided building in a large, grassy lot. I grew up in Minnesota with this sort of gathering place. In the 1880s, when the Red River Valley was settled, gathering halls and one-room schoolhouses sprung up in every township. By the time I was growing up, many of them had fallen apart and been torn down, or abandoned. A few still existed though: big and square, concrete steps at the front door, wooden floors. Generally, they smelled rather musty and mousey. Usually there was a stage, and somewhere in a place of prominence a roll call of those who served in the military in World War I – sometimes both WWI and WWII, but most often WWI, because that, after all, was the war to end all wars.
This hall was similar enough to make me wonder why all of these people were speaking with a funny accent. Although it was only a single story and more rectangular than square, this hall possessed the requisite war honor roll on the back wall of the stage. Long tables stretched the length of the room, the smell of soup pervasive. We found our reserved seats – right up front – and unloaded the nosh. I was introduced to a woman sitting across from me, who was quite gregarious (read: loud) who asked me what I thought of Australia.
In Paul Theroux’s book, The Happy Isles of Oceania – Paddling the Pacific, he comments on Australians’ propensity to ask, “So what do you think of Australia?” Experience has taught me to regard this question with caution, largely because I find that I will have to justify my answer either way, most often when I respond positively. Although I hate to generalize, it seems that the Australian psyche has a chip on its shoulder. Humility in demeanor is highly prized. In fact, there is an Australian phenomenon called Tall Poppy Syndrome which describes how Austrlians who succeed on a global scale – and have extraordinary talent – are attacked or cut down with the blade of “who do they think they are?” because their achievements distinguish them from their countrymen.
When asked the inevitable question of my opinion of Oz, I encountered the contrary nature of the Aussie. If I responded positively, I very often got a criticism in return. “Oh, but look, it’s nothing like your country’s (fill in the blank).” This was often offered in a mournful way, maybe with an accusatory glance. If I responded negatively (i.e., “Everything here is at least twice as expensive as in the U.S. and your Internet services suck.”) I would get an agreement. Heaven help me if I ever say anything about relocating. Occasionally, I get a defensive posture, which usually includes something about how Australia is getting more like the U.S., a response which is not offered as a compliment, in which case I started getting a bit defensive, because I can make fun of my family, but you better not. At any rate, since the response has not been consistent, I’ve had to develop vague answers such as, “This country – so vast!” Sort of like when you haven’t read a book and answer, “The words. The words!”
This woman was not prepared to accept a vague answer, though, as much as I tried to respond in neutrally.
She: Where are you from?
Me: I live in America.
She: Well I know that! Where in America?
Me: I live in southern California right now.
She: Why would you want to move here? It’s beautiful there!
Me: Oh – have you been there? It’s beautiful when it’s not 118 degrees.
(Digression alert: That’s another thing I have found – when I tell Australians that I’ve been living in southern California, they can’t understand why I want to leave. I believe that it’s because their image of SoCal is formed by television programs that show glitz and beach, that’s the immediate image that comes to their minds. I’ve only met a couple people here who know that Palm Springs is sort of like living on the surface of the moon, with lots of golf courses.)
Blank look. They use centigrade.
Me: That’s 40 – 45.
She: Oh, well, it gets that way here, too. It’s really hot here in the summer. And flies are terrible. It’s awful. Where have you been so far?
Me: I’ve spent time in Sydney and Melbourne, and traveled a bit in the country.
She: Oh, I bet that’s been pretty different for you!
Me: Actually, I grew up in the country.
She: Nothing like this country, I bet. This is the real boonies!
Me: You think so?
She: Don’t you?
Me: It sounds like you do.
She: Well, what do you think?
Me: I think this country is vast – so vast!
And then the music started, so I turned towards the stage and didn’t look back.
The musician, Claire Hayes, had her CDs on display on the piano (a wooden, upright piano – required for country halls of this vintage). She was 40-50-ish and slender and wore high black boots with skinny jeans tucked in, immaculate short precision cut hair. Her vest featured the Australian flag in pieces on the front yokes so that if you buttoned it up, the flag would be whole. A rhythm/sample machine provided drum and strings and other accompaniment. Reminded me a bit of what I might see at a county fair state in the U.S. – Texas panhandle, Oklahoma. She sang an assortment of songs, most of which I didn’t know but the audience did and sang along at some points. Wait – I did know a couple of them: “Throw Another Log on the Fire” and “Tie Me Kangaroo Down.” Seriously. Every single person in that hall was singing it. And here I thought that was just a goofy stereotype about Australia. Maybe it’s sort of like Americans singing “Oh, Susanna.”
Carol Heuchan is an award winning poet who writes poetry that rhymes, something that snotty MFA professors and students would ridicule. But here, it works. It not only works, but is celebrated. I can’t help but wonder what has she won – and from here? U.S.? Australia? She’s quite horsey, and has a long-time relationship with showing circles. She rides, teaches and even has been a judge. I had to give myself over to the experience, though, and understand that this is the entertainment. If I want Bell Shakespeare, then I have to go to Sydney or Melbourne – or even Bendigo. But this is what is available out here.
Carol is a 50-60-something woman slightly portly, strutting and mugging on stage, and playing the spoons along with Claire as she sang. Her books of poetry were displayed on the piano along with Ms. Hayes’ recordings; she had a couple of her own CDs on offer, too. The poetry was quite droll, except for the piece about the chestnut mare that was given to a soldier to fight in World War I. This poem referred to the 3rd Battle of Giza, when the Australian Mounted Division’s 4th Light Horse Brigade made what is sometimes called the last successful cavalry charge in history. Two regiments successfully overran Turkish trenches, galloping 3 kilometres (1.9 miles) into machine gun fire, equipped only with rifles and bayonets. Some of the front ranks fell, but most of the brigade broke through, their horses jumping the trenches into the enemy camp. The town of Beersheba and its vital water supplies were captured.
(Digression Alert: The Australians primarily rode Waler horses. The English cavalry officer, Lieutenant Colonel RMP Preston DSO, summed up the animals’ performance in his book, The Desert Mounted Corps: … (November 16th, 1917) The operations had now continued for 17 days practically without cessation, and a rest was absolutely necessary especially for the horses. Cavalry Division had covered nearly 170 miles … and their horses had been watered on an average of once in every 36 hours … The heat, too, had been intense and the short rations, 9 1⁄2 lb of grain per day without bulk food, had weakened them greatly. Indeed, the hardship endured by some horses was almost incredible. One of the batteries of the Australian Mounted Division had only been able to water its horses three times in the last nine days—the actual intervals being 68, 72 and 76 hours respectively. Yet this battery on its arrival had lost only eight horses from exhaustion, not counting those killed in action or evacuated wounded … The majority of horses in the Corps were Walers and there is no doubt that these hardy Australian horses make the finest cavalry mounts in the world …)
Because of Australia’s strict quarantine policies, returning the horses after the war was impossible. As a result, animals over the age of 12 or those in ill health were destroyed. About two-third of the rest were moved to other Imperial units. And most of the rest were destroyed by troops who could not bear to have their fellow soldier and faithful companion taken by the enemy. The poem tells the story of one soldier who chose to do that after the battle. I still get a big lump in my throat thinking about it. I think there were grown men weeping that night.
Ms. Heuchan finished up with a rap about cockroaches. When an Australian bush poet writes and performs a rap about cockroaches, it means that rap has either cemented itself in world consciousness as an art form, or become completely irrelevant. Clearly, she knows the show biz axiom of leave ’em laughing and wanting more.
When I was a much younger person, I read all the James Heriott, the “All Creatures Great and Small” series. The books were non-fiction, true accounts of Herriott’s experiences as a veterinarian in Yorkshire in the early 20th century. His adventures slogging through mud, birthing foals and calves, sewing up sheep, dealing with an eccentric Lhasa Apso owner and eating bacon consisting of nothing but fat (odd memory, I know) fascinated me and made me want to be a vet for whole days after I read each book.
But in the years that I was around horses (not that many) I never had anything to do with a birth. That’s not to say that there weren’t any – in fact, my very first pony, Daisy May (my Grandpa named her) was born out of Molly Brown (who I actually remember being a bay, but I could be wrong) on our farm. I missed the whole thing, but remember seeing the afterbirth and the pony when she was brand new, all knock-kneed like a giraffe and pretty curious about things in general. I think that Molly Brown was a quiet and steady mother, and I never felt like I was going to be trampled, although I was sort of cautious around horses then. I was never as horse-crazy as my sister who had all the Misty books, and “My Friend Flicka,” and “Black Beauty” (a personal favorite that I have on my bookshelf even today). She also had horse figurine collection. Morgan and Tennessee Walking Horses fascinated me, and I actually had a patch on my jean jacket that featured a Tennessee Walker. Later, I learned how those horses are taught their distinctive gate and reconsidered bugging my dad for one. I held out great hope for a Morgan, but ended up with a Pony of America, but more about that later.
The point here is that I never was present for a foal’s birth, even though there were a couple that took place on our farm. Being on a brood mare agistment facility was going to change all that, I was sure, even though none of the fat ladies (as my host called them) was due until mid-August. I decided I was going to stay until at least one mare foaled, even if I had to contend with the feeling that I was always doing something wrong.
A funny thing about Thoroughbred’s birthdays. All northern hemisphere thoroughbred horses have their birthday on January 1st. All southern hemisphere thoroughbred horses have their birthday on August 1st. This is regardless of their actual birthday, and is done to standardize age.
Consequently, the breeding season in Australia is scheduled so that mares are foaling as soon after Aug 1 as they can. Most are born in September as that generally takes care of any poor planning or mares not holding for the full term. As a result, August 1 is considered every Thoroughbred’s birthday, and those greetings are posted in the newspaper. The policy relates to being able to measure age accurately and tell if a yearling is really a yearling. In general, the foaling season in Australia is between August 1 and the end of October. A horse’s pregnancy is about 11 months, so you do the math about how soon mares go to stud again. In some cases, mares are bred weeks after. Talk about being barefoot and pregnant.
Breeding horses is a whole other thing to me. I had no idea about the procedures and vetting necessary to get a mare to delivery and get a healthy foal out of the deal. Sometimes, you just can’t. M. has had her losses along the way. Mares can get protective of their baby and accidently trample it when a vet or owner is trying to get to the foal. Some are breech, just like people, and don’t survive the delivery. Some die for no apparent reason shortly afterward.
(By the way, if you’re queasy about medical procedures, stop reading right now.)
And mares are submitted to any number of indignities along the way. A Caslick procedure is when a mare’s vulva is sewn together. This is done because sometimes fecal matter will get into the vagina and cause infection, which can cause either temporary or permanent infertility. The procedure, formally known as “Caslick’s repair” (since it was developed by a vet of the same name) is done for mares who have foaled a lot and have maybe stretched – or sometimes for mares that are large in the first place and suck air into the vagina when they trot or gallop, a thing known as “wind sucking.” Of course, once a small edge of the vulva has been cut away and sewn up, it heals over completely, which is good while they’re pregnant. But at some point the thing must be undone, otherwise the mare could foal and tear, which is not good. Sort of like getting an episiotomy for women. I’ve heard cases for and against each way. But with brood mares, that’s how it’s done.
Undoing the Caslick is a bit bloody. This is not a matter of taking out stitches, which I thought at first. Since the tissue is incised before its sewn, its completely healed over and must be cut. So undoing is sort of a misnomer, or an imprecise way of explaining what’s done. In reality, the vulva are cut apart again to open the vagina. It heals quickly, I guess, but there’s blood. The vet literally takes a scalpel and runs it down the vulva and separates them again. Of course, they look nothing like vulva anymore. It’s just tissue. It’s a little bit creepy and made me want to cross my legs.
(If you stopped up there, you can start here.)
There is a certain amount of a dispassionate response around here. I have to remember that this is animal husbandry. Horse breeding is a business. We had horses for pleasure and showed them a bit, my brother and sister more than I. But this behavior of treating a living thing like a commodity was disturbing. Owning and breeding horses cannot be viewed romantically.
As the mares got closer to due dates, M. and I got out the monitor. This is a device much like a nursery monitor, only there’s a box that is attached to the horse’s halter (Sorry. Head collar.) that sends a signal if it is placed in a horizontal position. If the mare lies down, presumably to give birth, the receiver monitor inside sounds with a tone that is impossible to sleep through, although M. told me that sometimes she ends up sleeping out in the living room where the receiver sits. We tested each one by me walking to the far end of the paddock while M. used very confusing hand signals to indicate when I should turn the little box to a horizontal position and whether the monitor had sounded inside. After much waving of arms and gnashing of teeth, she was satisfied that all but one worked, and we then attached them to the head collars and were on our way.
The only problem with this system is that sometimes horses lay down to go to sleep. Or roll around on the ground to scratch an itch, or just because they feel like it. Or rub their chins against the fence. So sometimes the monitor sounds and nothing is up. The procedure then is to turn the thing off, count to ten, and turn it on again. If starts beeping again, go out and check.
Finally, the evening came when the monitor went off and it was the real thing. Happily, it wasn’t 3 a.m., either, but the quite human hour of 6:30 p.m. M. went out to check, and shouted that the mare was in labor, so I went out to help. Watch, really. Once I was out there, M. raced back in to get her kit which consists of antiseptic spray (for the umbilical cord) and other stuff for birth-y events.
This is the part that makes all the other indignities and struggles worth it. And yes, just like in the “All Creatures” books, there are two tiny hooves and a little nose that can be seen through the sack and come out first. This little one had a white nose. While the mare strained, M. held on to the little one’s legs to keep it from slipping back in. And after a big push, there was a foal.
In the grand scale of things, it’s amazing that humans are still around at all. Despite the claim of greater intelligence (a fact which is debatable considering the current state of the world, but that’s another entry) humans take a long time to do things that animals do within minutes of being born. Once the foal had poked its nose out, it was immediately trying to figure out just how those long appendages worked. Mum was nickering at her baby (a girl – a filly) to get up and nurse. We stayed out there to make sure the foal was up, nursing, and had a poo. Of course, mum had to be attended to, as well, and moved to another paddock next door.
During the labor and birth there was another mare in the paddock trying to steal the foal. M. told me that the mare had lost her baby last year. She didn’t understand that she would have her own in just a few weeks, poor thing. My job was to keep that one away from the mum and bub that were moving, however slowly, toward the gate and their private room.
Consider the fact that M. is doing this alone. A typical day during foaling season might look like this:
Midnight: monitor goes off. Get out of bed, get dressed, go out the paddock. False alarm.
1 a.m. – Monitor goes off again. Mare is now in labor.
2 a.m. – A foal is born, is up within half an hour, nursing, etc. Everything has gone right.
4 a.m. – After getting the umbilical cord cut, the after birth delivered, cleaning up the foal, making sure its nursing and that mum has accepted it and has had her drenching or injection of whatever she needs, you can walk in for a cup of tea because, since it’s late Winter/early Spring, you’re freezing your ass off and your hands are numb.
5 a.m. – Warmed up again, you clean up a bit and crawl into bed for a couple hours of sleep.
7 a.m. – Time to check on the mare and foal.
8 a.m. – It’s time to feed the whiny dogs, the squawking chickens, and pawing horses.
9:30 a.m – Time for breakfast.
10 a.m. – Start the work of the day, which might include a visit from the vet to undo Caslicks, or a delivery of another pregnant mare, or a visit from the equine dentist, or cleaning up a cut or hoof abscess or all of the above.
1 p.m. – Lunch.
2 p.m. – After lunch, catch an hour or two of sleep.
4:30 p.m. – The monitor goes off. You turn it off for 10 seconds. It goes off again.
4:40 p.m. – You walk out to the paddock to check if there’s really a delivery in progress. There’s not. One of the mares is rolling.
And so on. And foaling season lasts for a couple months. And you are one person who has a part-time hired hand. And depend upon people who are either WWOOF-ers or HelpEx-ers and might know horses or might not and if they don’t they might not stay very long after they learn just enough to be helpful.
But she says it’s a good life.
I’ve put off writing about the Hunter Valley because there’s so very much to relate. Not only did I stay on a Thoroughbred stud farm, but I learned about a part of Australia that has altered my perspective on the country. No place is perfect. This is why it’s important to visit more than once – to get beyond the idealized version of a place and have more perspective on what’s on offer.
Although I had traveled using the HelpExchange web site last time I was here, when I decided to return to Australia, my intention was to travel through the WWOOF program (Willing Workers On Organic Farms). WWOOF issues a print directory that lists all the farms in Australia looking for workers and a description of what they do and/or grow. Unfortunately, I’ve had difficulty getting in touch with these farmers and pinning down dates to visit. It seems that WWOOF hosts don’t respond as quickly, nor are as easily selected. WWOOF does not have a user friendly web site, either.
Starting in June while I was still in Melbourne, I was in contact with the people on one particular farm in northern New South Wales in the area of Byron Bay. The description in the WWOOF directory read, in part:
“… Work includes all aspects of gardening, composting, landscaping, building projects, property maintenance, art projects. This is a new chapter in a 127 year old Australian farming family story. Be part of it! …”
Of course this attracted me because the land of my own family farm is now 129 years old, and I thought it would be great to compare experiences. A Mr. Martin McGettigan was listed as the contact person at St. Helena farm in McLeod’s Shoot, NSW. I sent an email, and when I didn’t hear anything in a few days, I followed up with a phone call and left a voice mail. A day later, I received this text:
“Hi there! Howz going!?!? It’s Martin, I’d like to call u … when is good time?”
Exuberance is good.
I returned the text, and received a phone call in the next few hours.
“Kimbel! This iz Mahten! From Saint Heleena fahmstay heeah by Byron Baaay!”
Funny. This guy didn’t sound like a McGettigan. He sounded like Ahnohd Schwartzenegger.
Soon, I learned that Martin was not Martin McGettigan at all, but a farm manager who just happened to have the same first name and had been working for “the excellent Mahtin Mageddagan” for a couple years. Believe it or not, this Martin was from Germany, but T.E.M.M. had helped him with his English.
It was hard to nail down any details besides what was already printed in the WWOOF directory pertaining to general farm work and the need for a good work ethic, a mature attitude and a good sense of humor. I was ready to move along up the coast right after leaving Melbourne in June (something that didn’t quite happen) and Byron Bay is supposed to be a lovely location. And T.E.M.M. was currently out of the country, expected back the first week of July, but would need to get over his jet lag, before they could discuss their needs. So probably nothing available until the end of July. But we’d be in touch.
When I got to Armidale, I followed up with Mahtin, and got this text:
“Yep great ! Talk 2 u soon …”
A couple days later, I got a phone call.
“Kimbel! Mahtin at Saint Heleena! How ah you!?”
Me: Great Martin! Good to hear from you. Are you ready for a helper?
Martin: Oh, well, Mr. Maahtin Mageddagan is just back from overseas in America tomorrow and will be tired. We will talk in a week to discover how you might come to us.
Me: Okay. Do you think it will be the end of July?
Martin: Yep. Yep. End of July. Definitely.
Me: Should we set a date for me to come up?
Martin: Yep. End of July. Once Mr. Mahtin Mageddagan returns we will talk about you. I spoke with him on the phone and he was interested in you.
I wasn’t quite sure how to take that one, but whatever.
Me: Great. That’s great. Where would I get off the train or bus? What’s the best way to get to you?
Martin: Yep. Yep. Oh, not the train. The bus.
Me: In Byron Bay?
Martin: Oh, no. Not Byron Bay. Maybe Casino. No, Byron Bay. You can stay in Byron Bay and come out to visit us.
Me: You don’t a place for helpers to stay? Do I need to stay in Byron Bay?
Martin: Oh, yes. We need to plant a vegetable garden.
Me: Shall we set a date for me to come up?
Martin: Yes, Martin Mageddagan will be excited to see you.
Me: Okay. How about the 20th? The 25th?
Martin: Oh, no, Mahtin Mageddagan will not be back until the 10th and then must rest. Then we’ll talk about you.
Mahtin and I had a couple more conversations along those lines and then I gave up.
Instead, I’ve depended upon HelpExchange again, the program that I used last year. The web site is easy to use, the descriptions of places are clear, and one can post reviews of hosts – and read other reviews. As a HelpEx-er, I can be reviewed, as well, so that hosts see that I’m not a complete flake.
So for the next location, I decided to please myself and found a Thoroughbred stud at Sandy Hollow, NSW in the upper Hunter Valley. Turns out that it’s difficult to get up the coast from Armidale without doing a whole lot of backtracking, sometimes all the way to Sydney again, then up north and east. So I decided to do the simple thing and head back the way I came. Unfortunately, I waited a little too long and ended up not being able to book a ticket due to a full train. As luck would have it, K. and her daughter R. were driving right through Muswellbrook where my new host could retrieve me.
Armidale is surrounded by orchards, and R. and I stopped on the way out. I loaded up on Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples, Packham and red Anjou pears, and more to bring to my new host. We had a little delay getting underway since we had to stop at the orchard and then stop in Tamworth to get K. who had been seeing clients that day. Then, we had to make sure that P’s truck was set up at the place it would be displayed for sale. Then, we had to make sure everybody’s things fit in to the truck we were driving, since R. had a load of things for her new Sydney digs, and K. had things along for her week-long stay there, and I, of course, had my two bags as well. I made good friends with the door and steadied the pile in the back seat when we rounded sharp corners. The only mishap along the way was running out of gas in Scone, just 20 minutes out of Muswellbrook. By the time a nice person stopped, took K. to the gas station, went home and got a gas can, then brought her back, we had been sitting for an hour, which put us late into Muswellbrook, and left my host sitting in the Hungry Jack parking lot for quite awhile.
On the road to Sandy Hollow, I saw my very first open-cut coal mine. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I thought I was perhaps a football game under bright lights, because the only other place I had seen lights that bright were at football or baseball stadiums. My host said it looked like Mordor. I agreed. That I could only catch glimpses of what was on the other side of the strategically planted trees added to the creep factor. There were lights. And there was machinery moving around – very large machinery – and there was a pit. A deep, deep pit. A shockingly deep pit that absorbed all the high wattage lighting. M. remarked that the mines run 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, 366 days a year. Don’t even close on Christmas Day.
Her property is about half an hour from the mine. She pointed out that it had been larger until a flood took a bridge out and a new road was built and bisected it. Periodically, the river sneaks up and bites off a bit, as well, so a couple paddocks have shrunk. But in all, it’s about 135 acres that contains a house, stable, hay shed, various pens, yard and paddocks, as well as a loading and vetting area. M. owns seven mares, has about a dozen yearlings (the kids) and there are various pregnant or dry mares that come and go depending upon the owners’ needs. The facility is referred to as a stud farm, which is a little misleading since she hasn’t had stallions on the property for years. (But she once had three serving mares.) But a “stud” is a general term that refers to not only the facilities that have stallions standing, but also those who offer broodmare agistment. Besides the horses, there were also two cows, Pippi Longstocking and Mrs. Grey, who were also pregnant. I couldn’t help but wonder as we pulled in the drive if horses get all hormonal and emotional when they’re pregnant, just like humans. Do their boobs hurt? Do they feel like crying a lot? Tired all the time? Just wondered. I never did ask the questions.
It’s funny, because M. says that she is not maternal at all – with the exception of her own children. I pointed out that she is now a mid-wife of sorts, and that her nursing experience serves her well. She didn’t disagree. But didn’t agree, either.
I grew up with horses, and the main reason I accepted P. and K.’s invitation to come up to Armidale and pursued M.’s place in Sandy Hollow was just to be around them, and possibly ride them. As it turned out, the weather didn’t cooperate when I was in Armidale, so we didn’t get to ride. And at River Ridge, there weren’t any horses that I could ride, anyway, something that M. made clear before I went. That was fine.
What I didn’t anticipate was the re-learning. I don’t know what I thought – it just didn’t occur to me that I might not be confident around horses any longer. And these horses – Thoroughbreds – aren’t like the steady American Quarter Horses that I grew up around. Quarter Horses were bred to be fast (quarter mile racing), they also were developed to work cattle. Thoroughbreds are bred to run. Run fast. For longer distances. And while we had some big horses come and go through the family farm, these ponies are long-legged and long-bodied. Again, they are supposed to run fast. Really fast. And they do. Even when they’re pregnant. Don’t think for a minute that that slows them down a whole lot.
Many of you have heard of the Horse Whisperer – at least, you have heard about the book and the movie. There really is a horse whisperer, and his name is Buck Branaman. He presents clinics and classes, training people how to train horses. Watching a documentary about him called “Buck,” I finally heard the explanation that made me understand horses and their horsey behavior. Horses are herd animals, so they function as a group. But more importantly, they are prey animals. The first thing that humans do to horses is present leather things (that smell like an animal) to put on them, and put a large, heavy thing on their back (a saddle, also made out of animal skin) exactly where a predator would leap on them. And then, we get on top of them. Just like a predator would. And we hold their heads so that they can’t run, and running is their best defense against predators. Watching these animals at River Ridge illustrated everything that Branaman said.
Brood mares are different than your average pleasure horse. Besides the fact that the Thoroughbred is a singular breed, many brood mares are never saddle broke. In general, they have to be halter broken, if for no other reason than to lead them up to sale. But in many cases, these females never race. They might have conformation flaws, or have good conformation but are slow. Or maybe they haven’t been handled a lot and never taught good manners, so of course it’s a great idea to get them bred, which means that they’ll be poked with needles and have their privates prodded by vets a lot, and that’s sure to improve a gal’s temperament.
The first thing you do with a horse in the morning is feed it. I was relieved that mornings there didn’t start as early as they did when I was growing up. B., the part-time hired man arrived around 7:30. He and M. would have a cuppa (as they say here) and plan out the day. M. had warned me that Plan A might become Plan B and Plan Z (or rather, zed) by the end of the day, so this daily con-fab was important. Moving horses to different paddocks, moving the cows to different paddocks, planning for a vet’s visit, or the ferriers visit, or the dentist’s visit, or going to pick up some mares a few hours away, or sorting out rugs (that’s a big horse blanket) or scooping poo out of pens or yards or cleaning up the vet area or untangling manes (did you know that vegetable oil spray works great for that?) or any number of things. B. was in charge of the big stuff, like filling feed bins, hauling hay, repairing water lines, preparing irrigation pipes, all that. I generally followed along and did as I was told. Or tried to do as I was told. Or did what I thought I had just been told. At times, the language barrier got in the way (pronunciation, vowel sounds, terminology – i.e., go get a head collar – what’s a head collar? – this! – oh … a halter – no, this is a halter – wait, aren’t those the same thing? – No. – Um… okay.)
A couple days after I arrived, M. had to go to Sydney and I was left in charge. Right. Essentially, being in charge for meant that I fed the horses and kept an eye on them, and had key telephone numbers available just in case anything looked fishy. Or horsey. Or something. True to form, the morning that M. left, I walked out to feed a mare who, the day before, had started to trash her rug. Well, she had finished the job – the thing was torn and hanging on her in pieces. She was oddly still, and I thought she looked like she was standing funny (peculiar) and sure as shit, she had a lovely laceration on her hind leg, crusty and bloody complete with a ribbon of flesh peeled back. My first thought: “Oh, I can get that rug off of her. I’ll just …” and the second thought : “Oh, I’m going to run like hell toward the house and pray that M. hasn’t left yet so that she can deal with this.”
The second choice was the right one, because I came to find out that this particular mare did not like to be caught, and didn’t much like wearing a rug, and was generally a little bit onnrey, as we said in Missouri. M. was able to get the rug off of her, and slap a little goo on the wound, which I was to check and re-goo in the evening.
I am constantly amazed by the people who are HelpX and WWOOF hosts, and the faith that they place in people who are complete strangers. M. had known me what – 3 days? – before she left me on the farm by myself with a couple dozen horses. Granted, I had the vet’s telephone number (which I ended up using – another mare presented herself with a hoof abscess) and B.’s number, and the number of the couple who ran the art gallery/coffee shop up the road, and, and, and. Still. I guess this goes back to what J. and M. in Bendigo and I talked about – 99 percent of people are exactly what they appear to be. M. is less optimistic and dropped that percentage to 90, but I still say 99.
M. returned from Sydney, and all was relatively well at the farm. One mare with a gooey hind leg, one mare with a bandaged abscess, the rest just fine and dandy and another one nearly ready to pop.
More about that to come.
Those of you who are regular readers know that this blog is rarely, if ever, written in real time. Traveling and creating the sort of updates that I like to write is challenging, to say the least. I stayed with P. and K. in Armidale from July 4-18 before I went on to the Hunter Valley and the Thoroughbred stud farm about which I’ve already talked to some of you. I know that you understand and will follow along, anyway.
When I was still visiting friends in Marlo, I received an email from P. in Armidale. He said that he had been a bull rider and still has horses. He must have read my profile and noticed that said I’d like to ride again, and that I spent summers painting the granary, the barn, the shed, the garage, the shop – because he invited me to come up and paint the house he shares with his partner, K. Since I wanted to head north and east into New South Wales, I thought that was a great idea.
On the way, I stopped briefly (from 5 p.m. one day until 11:55 a.m. the next) in Canberra, which is the capital of Australia. One thing I can report from Canberra is that it is cold. Cold enough to have an outdoor ice skating rink, which was a nice surprise. I didn’t go skating, though, because the rink was quite small, the ice looked terrible, it was crowded and I didn’t have my own skates with me. Other than that, it looked great. The cold did not seem to affect the natives, who dine outside no matter what the weather. I went to a little café in the morning – emphasis on little – where there was no seating left inside. There were heaters outside, though, and I noticed a woman out there enjoying her porridge, sitting with a gentleman who was eating bacon and eggs, each dressed in overcoats, gloves and hats. Stubborn cusses, these Aussies. I did finally buy a pair of gloves in Canberra.
I think I indicated in the last entry that the bus ride from Marlo to Canberra was five hours; to Sydney the next day, another four hours. Then another four hours (which turned into six because of a train delay) to get to Tamworth. It’s a big country. Eventually, I arrived in Armidale (see previous entry), a community of some 25,000 souls, an astonishing number of public, private and boarding schools (the featured photo is The Armidale School), a university, and two cathedrals, one Anglican, one Catholic. The New England Highway, one of the three major eastern Australian highways, runs through it. Considering its relatively remote location, Armidale is a sophisticated little country town. Besides the annual Fall Festival, the 9th Annual International Film Festival also attracts an audience and took place August 3-5 – tickets were sold out in one day. There were also several little cafes where a person could get a decent flat white – yet another sign of civilization.
P., one of my hosts, works for the shire council (sort of like a county government) at their water treatment facility where effluent is recycled for irrigating alfalfa that feeds beef cattle which are then sold each year. On his way to work every day, he passes the farm that he owned for years. He rebuilt the house, fenced paddocks, raised kids … but they never lived in the renovated place together as a family. P.’s wife moved into an apartment in Armidale after a fall during the remodeling process, and never moved back in. He was served, the property sold and the proceeds split. P.’s heart is still at that place where someone else now lives and enjoys his hard work. He grieves for the home he built.
It’s easy to understand why. P. grew up at Black Mountain, out in the bush. He started bull riding at a young age, starting with calves, then steers, then bulls and rode rodeo events for years. In the 1980s, he went to the Calgary Stampede as a member of the Australian team. He still trains horses and has half dozen spread over a couple properties. He has a prize saddle from Texas with the 4-H logo on it (those of you who grew up in the country will understand that …) which was fascinating. Weird to see that hand-tooled, high cantle, horned saddle hanging in his workshop are along with the Aussie stock saddle.
His kids have gone on to be cowboys, too. While I was there, the Calgary Stampede was underway in Alberta, Canada and his daughter was there. Another son sent him a Facebook message from somewhere out in the bush where he’s rousting cattle. His other son is a trick rider extraordinaire who has been to Hollywood but is now in Byron Bay, training others. He credits his father and his upbringing with much of his success and love of horses.
If there was a prototype for a cowboy, P. looks like he was issued by Central Casting. He is tall, lanky, a bit bow-legged. He is sinewy, his face is lined from years in the sun. The only thing that deviates from the stereotype is his hair, which he wears long and plaited like an American Indian. In fact, he loves Native American spirituality and showed me elk skin drums that he made himself.
P. spoke a great deal about the home he refurbished and the acreage he had as well as the fact he had to drive past it every day on the way to work. He has a beloved dog buried under a gum tree there, and one day on the way home pulled over to visit the spot, grateful for the dog’s presence in his life for so many years. We drove out there one day and immediately understood his longing, seeing how it is a happily situated place, a stream cutting through the property, cattle in one paddock, sheep in another. He pointed out the fences that he built, the way he divided the land for stock, the stone house that was refurbished and decorated in a western theme. I wondered if home is the place that you grieve, as well, the place that you idealize and mourn when it’s gone, always wondering what could have been and what you would rather have had, if only circumstances or people had fit your plan. I wondered if P. would ever be able to let his disappointment go, and most would say that letting go would be a good thing, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Some people have a deep need to remember, and to long for something. Sometimes what we imagine satisfies that longing like nothing else ever can.
P.’s goal with that property was to build a place for his family. The work took years to complete, and in that time, kids left home and his wife and he divorced. So again, I have to look at the idea of family as home, no matter where one is in the world. His partner K. spent about four years up in the Northern Territory, working as a physio therapist, flying in to remote communities to provide treatment both in hospital and out-patient. The Aboriginal population is large in that part of Australia, and unique. She relates an experience of taking cover in a hospital during a cyclone, seeing everybody sleeping together in family groups, thinking that she wished there was a place that she belonged like that. She did end up being adopted into a family and tribe, fortunate enough to experience members of a tribe opening their hearts to her.
So if we’re looking at connection to place as home, I think we also have to consider the people that accompany the place. I have been alienated by the superficial ideals of Southern California, not that I’m saying that everybody shares that superficiality. But that quality is repellant to me. In that case, the place has been defined by the people for me. And maybe this journey is one on which I long to find not only where I belong, but to whom I belong, as well.
It was my fault. When my next HelpX host contacted me and mentioned that one of their properties had a mineral pool near it and she wanted to make it a place of healing, I was thinking in California terms where place of healing is generally a euphemism for where New Age meets new boobs. Designer fat farms are disguised as wellness centers, Malibu spas double as drug treatment facilities for movie stars. Even my Ob/Gyn offered what she called “boutique” services, including Botox and dermal fillers along with hormone replacement therapy and pap smears. In the Golden State, centers for healing often have little to do with actual well-being and more to do the appearance of health.
The Coachella Valley where I lived has more than its share of wealthy residents. Example: The median income in Indian Wells is around $80,000. Most of those people come and go, staying for a few months in the winter until the weather gets too hot and they wing back up to Bainbridge Island in Washington, or maybe Coeur d’Alene , Idaho. In my experience, more than one property equals high income and material prosperity. So when we arrived well after dark in the little village of Pilliga and drove through knee-high grass to park in front of a house sporting a window with broken out panes and a door that didn’t have a door knob let alone a lock, I was surprised. The house had electricity but no heat, just hot water bottles and stacks of blankets.
When one has waited on a platform for two hours and ridden a train for six, been driven in a car for another three, not eaten in eight, and is fighting a virus, even the Four Seasons would look bleak. My host was excited about dropping all our things and getting straight down to the hot mineral bath for which Pilliga is known, but all I could do was sit on one of two twin beds and try to absorb my surroundings. Wearing two sweaters, a scarf, boots and my jeans, clutching a hot water bottle, I still shivered. I pleaded exhaustion and promised to check out the hot mineral pool in the morning. My host said she’d be up at 5 a.m., ready to go. I turned out the light and crawled under the covers, not bothering to undress, with my hottie, as they called it. (I could have used a different kind of hottie to keep me warm.)
Although there was stomping, clomping and some quiet singing early in the morning, I didn’t completely wake until the sun was well up, around seven. I was dressed already so that was handy. I had been told the night before that they typically didn’t use the toilet because the septic system was dodgy and the composting toilet wasn’t yet functional, so I had a quick slice of bread with peanut butter, put some tissues in my pocket and wandered off in search of a bathroom, or, short of that, a friendly shrubbery.
The morning was robin’s egg blue. Tawny gold. Fringed with scrub oak and bush. Rusted corrugated steel sheds. Houses with clotheslines out back and trucks out front. A herd of goats in a paddock. A primary school founded in 1883. A community center with (praise be!) public toilets – that were unlocked. A tennis court. A boarded-up café, all peeling paint and sagging roof. A road sign that pointed out that the new café was farther down the road into town. Endless, flat, golden land, quiet enough to make your ears ring. Crisp but not frosty, sun warming already.
Everything looks better in the morning.
K. came back from the pool later, wondering where all of us were. Her son was awake, but her daughter was still asleep, but got up after we all started chatting a bit. I shared the details of this project with them, and C. mentioned a friend of hers who had traveled the world and written about the same thing – sort of. C. herself is firmly rooted in Melbourne – grew up there, and just completed nursing training and has started a new job. She’s a city girl. Her idea of home is Melbourne. Her brother, E., has lived in Thailand, the Phillipines and the Northern Territory with his mom and dad. Yet he considers the house where he spent the most time of his childhood in Invergowrie home because it was the place they always came back to.
In the vernacular of the Aboriginal tribe that is native to that area, Pilliga means “place of oaks.” There are oak trees there, but more notable is the bore bath, a thermal pool that is a favorite of the grey nomads, retired Australians who tow caravans around, staying for a few weeks here, a few weeks there. Pilliga is barely a village, but has the necessities: police, a post office, a café/convenience store, a pub and fuel. It’s nearly 300 kilometers west of where I arrived in Tamworth, on the North Tablelands of the Great Dividing Range – which is actually a network of mountain ranges – that runs all the way from southern Victoria up to Queensland.
The area around Pilliga is full of broad-acre farming, and one of the main crops is cotton. As we walked along the road up to the pool, I made the comment that it looked like a cushion had exploded, picturing someone moving furniture and having a couch pillow escape. My host’s son told me that the fluff blows off of trucks hauling bales of cotton. The cotton farmers irrigate from the Murray and Darling River systems as well as the Great Artesian Basin aquifer. Right now, just about everybody is worried about water quality because 70 percent (yes, that’s seven-zero) of New South Wales is under exploration permit for coal mining and coal seam gas
I finally went with the family to the bore bath, a mineral pool that maintains a 99 degree temperature. The water smells slightly sulfurous, but not overpowering. A thin layer of green algae or moss coats the bottoms and sides of the pool. While the heat felt great, the most fascinating thing for me was watching K. give her daughter C. a treatment. K. is a physical therapist (or physio, as they call them over here) and is truly a healer. After outfitting C. with special floats that she constructed herself, she supported C. as she floated, stretching her, bending her, swishing her back and forth in the water, even dunking her for greater access to a sore hip or shoulder. The treatment went on for at least an hour, and the entire time, K.’s face was composed in a beatific smile. Then, she started on her son, and did a treatment nearly as long. Altogether, we spent maybe 2-3 hours in the pool. The night wasn’t quite cold enough for frost, but when I got out, my core temperature had been raised to the point that I wasn’t cold. We all scurried home to bed before we got col.
We were back at the bath by 5:30 the next morning, the only ones there for about an hour. With the lights off, Orion, the Pleiades, the full moon glowed. Steam from the water and our wet bodies. Wood smoke. The low gush of water coming out of the pipe. The sky turning from cobalt to sapphire to aquamarine, blushing in primrose and apricot. Once the sun was up, we dressed and left to drive back to Armidale, stopping to visit K.’s sister and niece along the way
K. possesses passion and idealism and compassion in abundance. Many would identify her as a child of the 60s and 70s, maybe even a hippie. But labeling something is a convenient way of dismissing it. Yes, K. is an activist and conservationist, attending demonstrations against coal seam gas exploration and mining and its resultant pollution. Her bathwater is saved for laundry, which in turn is used to flush the toilet. She uses a dishpan, something that I haven’t seen since I was a kid, and throws the water out on the back yard garden plots. A compost bin resides in the kitchen. Worms and their castings break down the compost on the garden. She grows her own vegetables. She is a vegetarian. The house is heated with a wood stove.
Until I experienced K. and P.’s lifestyle, I never questioned if I perhaps had an attitude of entitlement. Coming from California and an upper middle class lifestyle that included a BMW and a 4000-square-foot home, a person can get used to those things and assume that the entire world has access to them. I don’t think that I am that naïve or arrogant. But living in material prosperity for a prolonged period of time, a person becomes accustomed to things like flushing the toilet without thinking and allowing shower water to run down the drain. And how many times did I do just a quick load of laundry? Basic residential conservation is simple, but the fact is, saving water in those ways is just not convenient. Plus, in California’s Coachella Valley, it’s actually illegal to install a grey water recycling system. The cities have just started to use recycled water to irrigate a handful of the 120-plus golf courses.
Which begs the question – for me anyway – is home where you let the shower water run? Or is home where you are vigilant and conserve what you’ve got
Next, Armidale and painting with K. and P.
As part of my Western States Tour 2010 (see archives from August – October 2010) I visited the farm in Minnesota where I spent my childhood. After see the place and walking through the house, I insisted to my father and siblings that something had to be done. The house was falling apart: the ceiling in my bedroom losing its tiles, mouse droppings all through the carpet and on the mattresses, shelf upon shelf of mildewing books, a basement in which our wonderful neighbor burnt out three sump pumps in heroic attempts to keep it dry.
The house looked as though the inhabitants had left for just a few days and decided to never come back. Dishes sat in the kitchen cupboards; Mother’s stainless measuring cups hung inside the door; clothing still waited in the closets. The first time I walked through the house during that visit, I left quickly. In the past, the presence of Those Who Had Gone Before had always been palpable. Now the place felt truly abandoned, and I was spooked.
On Sundays during my childhood, my father would drive us down county and township roads, checking the crops. We would pass random abandoned farms – a barn with a caved-in roof, a house with a sagging porch, hip-high grass, trees overgrown around the lot as if to protect and conceal the decay. After my visit, it appeared that my family was going to follow suit and just leave our place to fall apart on its own. I was ashamed.
I neither intended nor desired to own our family farm someday. But I didn’t ever think that it would not be there. The possibility of selling any of it never occurred to me. Yet in December last year, 15 acres of the original homestead were purchased by a young farmer and his wife who have now demolished the uninhabitable house and some of the outbuildings. Now I picture a steel building the size of an airplane hangar sitting where the house used to, bursting with John Deeres and Internationals, 30-foot harrows. I haven’t decided whether or not this is a nightmare or merely a fact.
But I’m not the only person in the world who has had to process losing family land. Some of you may recall that I had the pleasure of speaking with artist Craig Barrett last December after I was galvanized by an installation of his work, “Everyman,” at the Shrine of Remembrance war memorial in Melbourne. I wanted to speak with Craig again because at about the same time I was visiting my former home, he opened an exhibition called “Buying Back the Farm,” his creative reaction to a farm being sold out of the family – a place that he had hoped to someday own.
Craig Barrett did not grow up on Wangambeam, the farm just outside of Euroa, Victoria, that his Uncle Jack and Aunt Elva owned. But it was integral to his childhood in the form of a holiday haven, an idyllic place where he and his brothers played. The land came into the family through convoluted relationships on his grandmother’s side. Approximately 1,200 acres remain of what started as 120,000. Barrett quips that “families killed farming,” the mathematics of repeated division splitting acreage into smaller and smaller pieces as each child matured and wanted his own land
I spoke with Craig at Angela Robarts Bird Gallery as we walked through his current exhibition, “A Shared Vision: Drawings by Craig Barrett and Photographs by David Tatnall.” His love for land and landscape is apparent, but I was there not only to admire the current work, but also to speak with him about the paintings and drawings that his way of reclaiming the farm.
Craig calls Wangambeam his Dreaming, a reference to the Aboriginal belief that before this time, there was another time where all that is around us was created. Aboriginal art is one of the ways by which that culture expresses its histories and passes down traditions and stories of the Dreamtime. Barrett’s art hands down his history, the images of one of the places that created who he is today. Craig bought the farm back figuratively – by painting it, both as it is now and how it was, sometimes superimposing one upon the other. The old dairy, the shearing shed, the house, the machinery. Ghosts and dreaming.
While we sat chatting over coffee and he took out a portfolio binder full of photographs: An idyllic pastoral of two young boys overlooking a rolling valley, a creek flowing through the background, a paddock dotted with hay bales at the foot of the hill where they stand under a willow tree. Barrett called it the Australian version of Norman Rockwell. To me, it is a Constable or Turner watercolor. Another shows Craig with his arms around the neck of a fawn-colored Jersey calf. The next, a fast moving creek, boys fishing from a bridge. Page after page of reproduced family photographs, every one soaked in the past, cured with nostalgia.
He shows me an aerial view of what is now called Lindsay Park, Jack Hayes’ Thoroughbred stud farm and training facility. The stable was built on the paddock, and beyond it are pools for equine physical therapy, padded corrals for lunging and exercising. The shearing shed is now a ballroom for celebrations continued beyond the winner’s circle. The tractor shed stands, covered with vines. So does the dairy. And the beautifully situated house has been renovated – a postcard sent 40 years ago by Craig’s mother unearthed from behind a kitchen cupboard.
Hayes moved to the property to Euroa (the name means “joyful” in the old Aboriginal dialect) from the Barossa Valley in South Australia where his former property, Angston, is for sale. Euroa consists of about 2,700 people and sits just off the Hume Highway on the way from Melbourne to Sydney, a more strategic location than South Australia. During the nine months that he spent drawing and painting the property, Craig had unlimited access to Lindsay Park. But he doesn’t like to be there anymore amongst the 120 people that work for David Hayes.
I ask Craig about the concept of genius loci, the spirit of place: Do we get taken up in the mythology of a place, until it becomes unclear whether the place has its own spirit or if we have imbued it with a spirit by imposing on it our own longing? Looking back can be important. Staring is a distraction at best, destructive at worst. He admits, “I prefer to be alone, so this may be part of what I build around me.” That’s an arresting piece of awareness. We create our own reality which includes memories – soft, fuzzy bricks of the wall with which we surround ourselves.
Note: When Craig emailed these images to me, he informed me that the all of the background material for the “Everyman” installation at the Shrine of Remembrance has been acquired by the State Library of Victoria. This comprises of some fifty pencil / crayon drawings drawn while reading the poems of Owen and Sassoon, some twenty full-size cartoons over which the calico banners were traced, all correspondence with the Shrine regarding the proposed installation, mock up photos of the installation, studio photos of works in progress, two proto type banners , etc etc. Craig now has works in the collections of National Gallery of Victoria, the Shrine of Remembrance and now, the State Library of Victoria.
He has also been asked to provide images as stage projections for the music festival One Great Night on Earth, being promoted by Chip Monke (of Woodstock brown acid fame) who has collected Craig’s work. The concert is a fundraiser for Fine Green Paddock, a not-for-profit organization that helps Australian farmers facing financial challenges due to natural disasters.
June seemed to be all about relationships – meeting new people and renewing acquaintances with friends I made last year in October, November, and December. In the blogging master class I made the acquaintance of a few women who were disciplined bloggers, who I am now trying to emulate. Through a friend of mine in the UC-Riverside MFA program (who is a freshly minted MFA in Screen- and Playwriting) I met a delightful young woman with whom I shared a flat white coffee and a few hours of conversation. Judith and Milton’s daughter and her partner have become new friends, as well.
A journey up to Bendigo to visit with Judith and Milton seemed like a good thing to do. I had taken the train up a couple weeks earlier to see an exhibit from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, “Grace Kelly: Style Icon” which displayed gowns and dresses from her movie roles and her role as a Princess. (By the way, there’s a really obnoxious ad before this video starts …Just a warning.) The exhibit was crowded and over-heated (note to self: don’t wait until the final weekend of a show) but the gowns were fabulous to see, especially to someone who loves textiles and still sews.
I still like Bendigo immensely, and the hospitality was without fault. Although it’s a provincial city of only 100,000 people (I think it’s 100,000 – there’s no metric conversion for population, right?) it is the third largest city in the state of Victoria. Bendigo Art Gallery is the only venue in Australia that will host the Grace Kelly exhibit. The Bell Shakespeare Company (out of Sydney) presents there regularly. With the growing population come more amenities plus, it’s an easy distance from Melbourne and its activities.
While I was there J&M and I visited the Sutton Grange Art Show, a yearly event that is not juried, although prizes are awarded. There was a preponderance of water color landscapes, and a number of oddities, but I liked the sculptures. According to the nice people collecting the $2 admission at the door, there were more than 200 paintings entered.
Visiting my friends down in Marlo, Debra and Andrew, also seemed like a good thing to do, so I set out from Bendigo on train one morning (not quite two hours on the train) connected in Melbourne to the Bairnsdale train (another 4 and a half hours) and then hopped on a bus to Marlo in east Gippsland (another 2 hours). Cities and towns aren’t close together in this country.
Cold weather in northeastern Victoria is pretty typical as it’s on the south coast and enjoys lots of rain in the winter. I think the weather might slow down the photography business, but A. is quite extroverted and we had many lively discussions – he does possess a contradictory streak, god bless ‘im. D&A’s house is quite comfy, though, and I had a room with a heater all to myself. When I arrived, Ming, a Chinese student, was staying through Helpx. When I left, a French student, Camille, had just arrived. Since the Helpx thing was covered, I got to relax and visit – and didn’t even have to wash windows this time.
After a week in Marlo, I caught a bus in Orbost to Canberra (4 hours) where I stayed overnight at the grubby YHA hostel, then caught a train to Sydney the next day (4 hours) and stayed with my friends Susan and John. (We attended the New Year’s Eve festivities at the Sydney Opera House last year.) Then, on to another train to Tamworth (6 hours) where I’ll be a Helpx-er to Kate and Phil. I’ll paint and hopefully get back on a horse if Phil is ready to mentor me since it’s been awhile. He used to be a bull rider (has the championship belt buckles and saddles to prove it) and still , in his words, “messes around” with horses on his ranch in the hinterlands of northern New South Wales. Should prove to be an interesting couple weeks.
This entry is short, I know, but is intended to just be a space marker between my time visiting in Melbourne and starting my journey staying on organic/sustainable farms. I feel as though I am finally getting into the true purpose of my time here.