Out here in the Murray Mallee, the flats and slopes of the undulating dales are turning green again after so long a drought. The acres of tree and shrub replanting we did are showing signs of kicking back into life…it was a touch and go moment there when it was so dry. When my mother worked at Portee Station along the Murray River back in the war years, she worked with an indigenous girl who told her that their people would mark trails through the low, stunted Mallee by twisting two sapling branches of a mallee tree around each other and fixing them so they grow that way, thereby marking a route that could be easily lost in that vast forest. You would sometimes in years later see these left-over markers from an age so long gone..and the trees would look like they were a couple of lovers embracing in a dance…
Adagio Dancers of the Mallee.
The Mallee trees hold rock solid,
Like a pair of adagio dancers,
Feet fixed on stage, last step’d,
Posed, poised and arms svelte-twist’d to the applause:
Of the rasping cry of cockatoos in delight,
Silhouetted against the striking light..
Silvered limbs naked sheen,
The dancers twirl under evergreen
Rustle of sequin’d leaves.
A glimpse of heaven in between.
The adagio dancer can never seem,
As slender-limbed , as argent-sheened,
As the Mallee trees I have seen.
Then, in the age of mechanisation, vast areas of Mallee were cleared, Farms were forged further and further out to where it was ever only marginal cropping country so that after the first years when the soil lost its fertility, those hardy pioneers were forced to abandon all their hard-won work and move to more productive areas…but the damage remained. You can still see the evidence of trial and tribulation in the wrecked remnants of out-buildings of post and beam sheds, crumbling thatched roofs and hitching posts for the teams of draught horses to be “tacked up” for a day’s work in the fields…every piece of wood is a piece of history and the dust has settled on many a family’s story.
The Rose and the Plough.
In the back-blocks of the mallee
‘Neath Mrs. MacFarlane’s sill,
Grew a rose bush many years ago,
(I ponder it’s there still?).
“’Twas planted for my Louise
When she were newly born.
I mark the contrast of the rose:
The blossom above the thorn!”
MacFarlane ploughed the dry soil of that block
With machines tended of sweat and tears.
While Louise blossomed with the rose
All through her growing years.
But age slowly wearied him,
The years of labour took their toll.
So young Tim Brey that season worked the plough
And a bumper crop did sow.
Creeping fingers of evening shadow
Edged ’round mallee scrub and tree,
As Tim drove through the station gate
And Louise, he did suddenly “see”.
One warm evening ‘neath a mallee tree,
With the harvesting finally done,
The “old man” grumbled toward the house,
While Tim and Louise talked on alone.
A silence fell after all was talked about
With dusk thru’ dust aglow,
Tim clasped the bough above her head
And leant toward his “rose”…
…The wind would move the fields of grain,
A swollen swirling “sea”,
Of “ebb and flow” in the crops
On the Breys’ new property…
Themselves now grown so old,
Their children too have flown.
But still the rose bush given
For their wedding blossoms on.
The mallee is not so prosperous,
The price has gone from wheat.
The farm is dusty, the house too old,
Deep lines fan Louise’s cheek.
Tim Brey harrows still with his plough
The “home paddock” into rows,
While Louise battles with their accounts,
As dust silently falls – on the petals – of the rose.
I sit by the heater on cold nights, reflecting on those “left-over” people who stayed long after the feasibility of their farm was able to continue…slowly selling off blocks of paddocks to other local farmers who themselves needed to increase the size of their holdings to keep their hopes alive. Many of these people took up new “careers”…I met a lady when I worked at Second Valley whose uncle was just one such person…he was a Soldier Settler after the second world war who had a dusty little spread out near Lameroo..but it failed and he took to selling life insurance. He lived his life out by himself as a bachelor and upon his passing left very little to be remembered by…the only physical evidence this lady had of him was the ‘breeks” she was wearing while she did her gardening at the Second Valley Mill…they were army issue and that is what drew my attention..when I asked her about them, she said..
“He was a bachelor, you see.
He was a soldier-settler
Out in the Mallee scrub…
And he died…
Father went through his things
But he couldn’t throw these out…”
She “thumbed” out the pockets of her breeks.
“They have his army number on them, see !
He was a lovely old man , my Uncle Bill.”
But we have seen a few “Uncle Bills”,
Spurned or turned from a woman’s embrace.
Uncertain and clumsy in affection
Toward sisters’ or brothers’ children…
“The breeks were army issue,
Part of the “deal” for soldier-settlers…
God only knows how he struggled out there.”
(A soldier-settler alone in the Mallee).
“God only knows.”
When I was a child of around nine years old back in the 1950’s, I was sent to relatives in the Mallee while my mother was busy with her new child. I travelled there via the old Zimmerman’s Bus Service, going up The Gorge Road to Birdwood and then to Keyneton and over Sedan Hill. I remember when we just topped the crest and I could see out over that vast stretch of Mallee bio-forest that was still in place those days…and it was a magnificent sight…dark and mysterious..and even today, whenever I arise on a beautiful morning, I still delight in the things that greet me.
I go outside in the mornin’,
Pause..take in th’ weather..; yawnin’,
Mark how the dawnin’ sun
Gives the silver’d branches a dun
Coloured sheen…nice ‘n clean.
Matching the wing of a galah
Tight-cling’d there…..on a spar.
An’ I’m thinking..
In this quiet, morning haste,
That one oughta’ feel some poetry,
Whilst in such a place..
But then…ah..it’d just be a waste…
Sure an the Mallee can be a lonely place to live, but it also can be ideal for those who like to have many animals as company…even wild animals can become accustomed to a single human and will often seek water or food from one’s garden in times of drought. We had a kangaroo come often to our back door looking into our house in curiosity…we never fed or encouraged it, it just became familiar with our presence..I even once reached a friendly hand out to it and it did likewise to me, our finger to claw touching for a moment like that scene in the film “ET” …not that I have ever watched the film..a bit silly as far as I’m concerned..I prefer the reality of what I see and sense around me. Yes..the Mallee is a deep and spiritual place for me..I have family connections through marriage that reach far back into the early days of settlement and their struggle is written in the build and lay of the land around me.
Little Window on the Western Wall.
My little window on the western wall,
Opens out on the whole wide world.
It opens out on the Mallee plains,
It opens out to the summer rains.
It opens out on a sonorous dawn,
With it’s promising colours in pastel tones.
And embraces within all sorrows and joys,
In silent parade past my western wall.
Flowers of Spring as the seasons go,
Winter wild, Summer mellow.
Fields below the farmer sows,
Crops in serried paddock rows.
A child cries out! A strange bird sings,
Through the sphere of silence rings.
A whiff of desire of a memoried dream?
Against the clatter of urbanity.
Upon a highway that cuts the view,
Cars sweep past in the morning new.
That with the deepening, darkening dusk,
Wearily steal back home to rest.
My little window on the western wall
Opens out on the whole wide world,
And within its embracing vision deep,
I watch the world wake..I see it sleep.
And now, my little peeps, it’s time we too went to sleep…
Sheryl Crow..: “Beautiful Dreamer” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_aB1NOqC3Y