The Last Empire.

Hundred of Anna in the Murray Mallee.

‘Twas the hour before the gloaming, when the hardest of the day’s work was done…the bulk of the fortnight’s work actually, for this day marked the winding-up of the harvest..the end of a year’s work of harrowing, ploughing, seeding and watching the crops grow..to now, the winding down of the end of the year’s worry and work…The crop was in, harvested, winnowed and bagged, the carrier contractor with his sons, was loading the last truck of sewn bags of wheat to cart to the rail-head to be shipped to the port. It had been a “paying year” for the cropping…not a bumper year like the one two years ago, but still a good year..and as far as the head of the family went, a good harvest to finish up on.

Mattheus Kreuger tipped the last bucket of hard-feed into the horse’s trough, his eye cast over the mix and texture of the feed with the experienced eye of an old horseman-farmer…Mattheus was never one to either under or over-feed his team of draught horses, knowing from bitter experience from the days of want and scarcity just how much maintained a balance of good condition in a working horse.

“Matt!” the carrier called over the yard “Matt!…we’re on our way…catch you with the receipt up at home?”

“Right you are John…be there tomorrow afternoon…catch you then”..and he gave a dismissing wave as he walked to the feed shed..the truck chassis heaved a creaking groan with the revving of the engine as it set off in a cloud of raised dust out of the farm-gate.

Home for the Kreuger family was not where they farmed these paddocks..like several Mallee Flats farmers, the main house and spread was in the hills above these drylands…in that part of the state where the grazing of fat-lambs was more reliable with the higher rainfall and better feed. But here on the flats, there was sufficient rain for good cropping which needed less than those of open pasture, so that many blocks on the flats were sown by absentee farmers who came to the paddocks with their whole family and workers with horses and equipment to stay several weeks while they worked the soil and seeded, and then when they cut and harvested the crops..There was a spacious hut built of stone on one of the paddocks that housed the women and children and where the meals were cooked and served to all the people working there…at night the women and children would sleep in the stone hut while the workmen would bunk-down in the out-buildings where the harnesses and feed-stores were kept..these outbuildings were built of rugged post and beam construction with pug and native pine infills for walls…it was rustic but warm, with the thatched roofing giving any heavy rain that soft almost silent drumming sound as it fell.

Such had been the routine for farming for so many years, that Mattheus was having troubled thoughts of handing over the reins of the farm to his sons, who were keen to adopt change to both the layout and management of the system of farming practice…for there had risen over the last few years a new technology that would render the old horse-drawn methods redundant…the age of the tractor had arrived and this new machine-driven methodology would allow twice the acreage to be worked in as much time as the old horse-drawn method..and without the tiresome attention given to the animals themselves..Mattheus was well informed of these positives by his two sons on any given moment if  a favourable ear was turned their way…Mattheus was suspicious of any talk of “making life easier”, as time had worked its abrasive grit onto both patience of mind and callous of hand..but then, he recalled, so had he persuaded his father of the benefits of the mechanical stripper over the old stooking and threshing method of harvesting..so he was willing to give his sons the blessing of his elder respect.

But today was the end of harvest and the entire family would sit to dinner this evening with the conscious relief that this marked the end of the repetitious rounds of up at dawn and crack-on till sunset work-cycle of harvest time. Magdalena, Mattheus’s wife of forty years, would serve the last full family meal for the harvest and along with the food would be the end of harvest prayer of thanksgiving and health which Magdalena would lead from the foot of the long trestle table..which would be followed by a loud and solemn ; “Amen” from Mattheus at the head of the table.

This was the ritual that finished the end of harvest every year since the family had bought and come to the Mallee Flats to crop the land. This was the ritual that bound every member to the home and hearth of family consciousness. This was the ritual that was repeated in many of those sturdy pioneer gatherings across the length and breadth of what was known as “Breakheart Country”. This was the “glue” that formed the tie to community and church and from there to each other, this familiarity and consciousness of like-habits and required procedure…this..was the culture of a community.

And what food there was!..so much gathered from the farm vegetable garden, home produce that bore the skilled hands of the growers, makers and preparers, recipes for cured meats and cheeses handed down generations…sauces and spices made from the smallest measures of condiments that extracted the richest of flavours, cuts of meat from farm-grown stock, placed in large cooking dishes and pushed to that certain place in the large wood-fired vault oven at the rear of the hut…a “hut” whose proportions were of such space in height, length and breadth to take the whole family with children and workers at one long trestle table set groaning every night with frugal but sumptuous fare..for this was not the banquet of a gluttonous merchant, but the necessary food for hard working people..and as such would give each and every person fair share of the products of their own labour from both field and garden, with loaves of fresh-baked breads to the steaming potatoes from the garden…all was good, all was well and at the completion of the meal, when an air of sighing satisfaction was perceived, it was time for the head of the family to make a speech.

Mattheus rapped the wooden serving-spoon from the plate of vegetables onto his plate…

Mattheus’s speech…

“My usual position when at this point of the evening, is to be standing here at the head of the table, cup of good cheer in hand, giving a thank-you speech and congratulating us all on a job well done…but tonight, I will remain seated..not out of a sense of indolence nor disrespect…for I doubt there is a person in this room does not know of my nature by now..But tonight I remain seated so as to talk to you on the same level…no longer as “Th’ Boss”…nor now as head of the work-team, for tonight I hand the reins…if only figuratively..over to my sons ; Peter and Christian..for it is they who will now take the family farm onto the next chapter of its evolution with the full blessing of myself and Magdalena..and it is that evolution that will change the entire work practices..as we have talked of these last several years..from the old one of horse and harness to the new of tractor and steel couplings…Myself, having reached both God’s and Nature’s allotted time of years allowed a man..; “Three-score and Ten”..I am like the proverbial old dog and new tricks…I cannot change and I have no right to stand in its way.

But tonight, I want to talk about another thing and I hope give both my sons, their wives and children..our grandchildren..both warning of consequence and also to top up the cup of cheer with the measure of hope..

Nature has lent its hand to us…she has given us soil..water..and sustenance..From time immemorial we have harnessed her beasts for the field..with the strength of these fellow toilers, these mute companions of our labours, we have turned the soil, harrowed the earth and seeded our crops..from the time when my father and mother first set foot on this strange country and drew our section of land and marked the dimensions of their home on the soil, to now when their children sup at the table of their dreams and promise, it has all been done with eyes firm set on that measure of a man’s worth..the measure of a woman’s worth..on the measure of home and family..on a measure of hope..My parents, our forebears built an empire out here upon a new country..not an empire of imperial conquest, nor an empire of expansive proportions, but rather an empire of hope and dreams..their backs bent to the chores of that ambition, without doubt, without fail and with high faith in their mission to succeed…indeed, succeed they must or perish in the trying.

The greatest treasures of a parent is their children..it is the children who will carry the future to further horizons that can be dreamed of by a parent and it is the safety of those children that exercises the most concern for the parent..What measure of gold is the equal to the harvest of seed that gives new life in every season to a garden? What reward of contentment can equal that of a full stomach, a clear mind and the love in one’s heart for what greets them on the start of a full day of productive and rewarding toil?…Why would a man get out of bed if not to fulfill the promise and reap the bounty of a life of hope…that measure of hope that is the right of every person born under Nature’s sky and God’s heaven?

When I gazed tonight upon the healthy meal that my loving wife, Magdalena, set before me, I saw the fair measure of meat…of potatoes..of pumpkin grown so prolifically over the old composting stable heaps..it’s tendrils seeking distant promise like an arm reaching for distant fruits..a wonderful meal..and all in good measure..and it is that measure that I now talk of to each and every one of my children and their families to heed and be watchful that envy and greed do not cast a shadow over future ambitions.

A long life..a hard life taught our parents the creed of what is fair measure for one to aspire to..what is just reward for one’s labour..and there is no sense of satisfaction in the shirking of one’s fair share of labour..for there is a measure in nature in this world where each person is allotted a share of labour and where one person shirks their share, it falls to the shoulders of another to carry that extra load..and THAT..in anyone’s sense of justice is a failure of duty toward our brothers and sisters.

I hear talk of the new mechanics of farming having the means of “making life easier”..and I have to admit that after a bad day with horses, harness and machinery, such a phrase would even make my eyebrows lift in inquisitiveness and bring a smile of delightful possibility to my lips…”To make life easier”…now isn’t that a hope and dream to aspire to?…to make life easier…but then I have to ask..; “easier from what?”..certainly, if one was held in slavery..or imprisoned unfairly..or driven to extreme by brutal Master and Lord, one would wish for life to be easier..for those conditions are  un-natural to both nature and humanity..and I would trust to all of us here in this room..let no man proclaim ownership over another’s life, lest he too be one day given like punishment.

But no..here and now, on these paddocks..on this farm..in this part of the world, what measure of life can be claimed to be better for the making of it easier? Will the vegetables grow faster, the sheep more wool?…Will the ache of work be less assuaged with a full stein of beer at day’s end?..and what of THIS day..this end of harvest celebration..will such a thing exist once the mechanics of it takes away the comeraderie of shared, shoulder to shoulder labour?…and what of the table of food like we see here in front of us..where waste from the stables goes to the heaps of compost and thence to the garden from whence comes the vegetables to our table…where will the waste from the tractor go? Will it give nourishment to the soil or will it make waste of the soil and thence make life less easier for those who must clean up such waste?..Will there be need for such a gathering of family to give thanks for the blood, sweat and tears of a year of toil when less folk are needed for the harvest?…Will the making of life easier also mean the lessening of the rewarded pleasures for the job’s end , for is there anyone among us who does not breathe a sigh of relief at hard work’s end..but then also be content and the soul fulfilled with satisfaction of a job well done?..Does not that also feel so good?..And I wonder on the lessening of the need for hired labour to attend the many chores for maintaining the draught horses…the harness repairer, the farrier, the smithy..and if they go, what of the town band..and the church choir..and then the bakery and grocer?…and our neighbours who cannot afford to tool-up to this new mechanics..are they to become a sacrifice to a new world order of an “easier life”..

No..I cannot stand in the way of progress, but I do give notice to you, my children, that you use caution with this new method of farming..do not let it steal your skills..do not to let it take control of YOU..I know you will have to go to the bank to up-grade to the tractors and new machinery it uses..be warned about the banks..they have no friend but compound interest, no mercy save the court of bankruptcy and no soul save that traded with the devil.

No..I cannot stand in the way of progress, so I will leave the farm in the steady hands of our children and wish them well while myself and Magdalena seek retirement in Tanunda and I will perfect my arm at bowls and my ear at listening to the idle chatter of the town.

So let us raise our cups to give thanks for the measure of hope that has been promised and now fulfilled…”

 The following morning, while the sun was yet low and the breezes mild in the Mallee trees, the trappings of the hut and camp were packed up, the women and children were driven back to the farmhouse in the car and Mattheus and his sons led the horses down the track in the direction toward home.

3 thoughts on “The Last Empire.

  1. It is so familiar, my own great Grandfather would have thought the same. However I am very familiar with the type of country described. It is your country Joe belonging to your family in a time not so long ago. It was and is a harsh and unforgiving lifestyle, the likes of which we will not see again.
    Regards Len

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  2. Mattheus’s speech…: “a warning of consequence and also to top up the cup of cheer with the measure of hope..;”
    He says: “My parents, our forebears built an empire out here upon a new country..not an empire of imperial conquest, nor an empire of expansive proportions, but rather an empire of hope and dreams..their backs bent to the chores of that ambition, without doubt, without fail and with high faith in their mission to succeed…indeed, succeed they must or perish in the trying.”
    He also says: “I now talk of to each and every one of my children and their families to heed and be watchful that envy and greed do not cast a shadow over future ambitions.”
    “I cannot stand in the way of progress, so I will leave the farm in the steady hands of our children and wish them well while myself and Magdalena seek retirement in Tanunda and I will perfect my arm at bowls and my ear at listening to the idle chatter of the town.”
    So, he is looking forward to a well deserved retirement with Magdalena.
    It is obvious, that he cannot stand in the way of progress. The end of an area, or one might say, his is “the last Empire”.
    Mattheus knows that “future ambitions” are going to lead to a very different life-style,
    His speech is full of warnings about the consequences if people choose to have an “easier” life . . . but there is also “a measure of hope” in his speech.
    I believe, Joe, this old guy in your story is an excellent example of a very honest hard working man, who can be proud of a life well lived! 🙂 And he was lucky to have had a good woman by his side! 🙂
    I have a feeling you may have met guys like this . . .

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  3. Sadly, Uta…the people of the older generation in this story…Mattheus and Magdalena..had all passed on by the time I came to know of the history of the district…the old people here now were the sons who brought in the tractor driven farming…Those old people could be hard task-masters..and perhaps somewhat unforgiving in their drive to survive…and it really was a drive to survive….and by Christ they had to work hard to get their piece of paradise!…everywhere I walk on this small patch of pioneer plot of house and land cries out of hard-work…disciplined management…there was no chance to shirk off, the rule of nature in those times did not allow it!…but they came to know Mother Nature well, and came to respect her give and take and created a community here…which, ironically, their descendents finally destroyed..as Mattheus described in his speech.
    I wanted to write Mattheus’s speech with all the gravitas of the speech of the Roman historian ; Tacitus when he gives the speech of Calgacus to his troops in the British wars.. https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/readings/agricola.html ..I wanted to show the gravitas but with the hope of promise of a better future…alas, that future was short lived and now this is a very marginal farming area..

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