Read The Road from Coorain Online

Authors: Jill Ker Conway

The Road from Coorain (2 page)

A man could buy the government leasehold for hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland at a modest price if he settled the land and undertook to develop it. Others, beyond the reach of government scrutiny, simply squatted with their flocks on likely-looking land. The scale of each holding was beyond European dreams of avarice. Each settler could look out to the vacant horizon knowing that all he saw was his. To graze the unfenced land required a population of sheepherders, or, as they came to be called, boundary riders. A settler would need twelve to fifteen hands for his several hundred thousand acres, but most would live out on the “run” (sheep run) at least a day’s ride from the main settlement. The hands were solitary males, a freewheeling rural proletariat, antisocial, and unconcerned with comfort or the domestic pleasures. Their leisure went in drink and gambling, and their days in a routine of lonely and backbreaking work. The main house would be spare and simple also, its roof of iron and its walls of timber laboriously transported from the coast. The garden would be primitive and the boss’s recreations would be little different from his hands’. If he shared his life with a wife and children, they lived marginally on the edge of his world of male
activity. There was no rain for orchards, no water for vegetable gardens, and no society for entertaining. Women worked over wood stoves in 100 degree heat and heated water for laundry over an open fire. There was little room for the culinary arts, because everyone’s diet was mutton and unleavened bread, strong black tea, and spirits. The ratio of women to men was as distorted in this wave of settlement as anywhere in the settlement of the New World.

The bush ethos which grew up from making a virtue out of loneliness and hardship built on the stoic virtues of convict Australia. Settled life and domesticity were soft and demoralizing. A “real man” despised comfort and scorned the expression of emotion. The important things in life were hard work, self-sufficiency, physical endurance, and loyalty to one’s male friends, one’s “mates.” Knowledge about nature, the care of animals, practical mechanics was respected, but speculation and the world of ideas were signs of softness and impracticality. Religion and belief in a benevolent deity were foolish because daily life demonstrated beyond doubt that the universe was hostile. The weather, the fates, the bank that held the mortgage, bushfires—disaster in some form—would get a man in the end. When disaster struck what mattered was unflinching courage and the refusal to consider despair.

Very few women could stand the isolation. When a settler prospered, his wife and children moved to a distant but comfortable rural town, where there were schools for the children and companionship for their mother. If he did not prosper, she was likely to be overwhelmed by loneliness. Nothing interrupted the relentless routine of hard labor, the anxiety of illness far from hope of help, the certainty of enervating summer heat, frosty winter cold, and the pervasive anxiety of disaster looming. Disaster could strike swiftly—some little-understood disease might wipe out the investment in the flock or the herd; a man or a child could die from snakebite, a tetanus-infected wound, a fall from a horse. Or disaster could set in slowly with the onset of drought. It
was ever-present and a woman at home alone all day had time to think about it. Some took despairingly to drink, some fell into incurable depression, others told their husbands they could not endure it and left for the city.

The ideal woman was a good manager—no small task with only wood stoves, kerosene lamps, inadequate water, and the nearest store for canned goods fifty to a hundred miles away. She was toughened by adversity, laughed at her fears, knew how to fix things which broke in the house, and stifled any craving she might once have had for beauty. She could care for the sick, help fight a bushfire, aid a horse or cow in difficult labor, laugh and joke about life’s absurdities and reverses, and like a man, mock any signs of weakness or lack of stoicism in her children. Everyone knew the most important gift to a child was an upbringing which would toughen him (her) up so as to be stoic and uncomplaining about life’s pains and ready for its reverses. The sons of the outback made great soldiers in modern wars because they had been prepared for them since infancy. The daughters lacked such a calling.

The pattern of the year followed the seasons. If the rains came, they fell in the winter. Lambing was planned for the spring, when the grass was at its best, and the last winter showers might have left some tender growth for young lambs to nibble before their teeth developed. If seasons cooperated, the lambs were well grown, able to walk great distances for their food and water by the time the summer set in. In February, before the summer reached its peak, the lambs were shorn, and the faces and withers of the grown sheep were trimmed so that flies could not infest the places where sweat and urine soiled their fleeces. In June, in midwinter, when it was less harmful to move the animals over distances and hold them penned in yards, the grown sheep were brought to a shearing shed and shorn. If there had been an uninterrupted supply of nourishment through the year, their fleece would be seven inches thick, unstained by dust, and carrying an unbroken staple that meant it could be easily combed to
spin the finest yarn. If the land they grazed did not carry enough herbage throughout the year, the staple of their fleeces would show a break to mark the point where the food supply had faltered. When the staple was broken it could not be so easily combed, and the yarn it produced, being of less high quality, sold for less. If there were too many breaks it might not repay the cost of producing it.

A pastoralist could follow several economic strategies. Fewer sheep could be grazed over a set area of land, moved to fresh pasture whenever their nourishment required, and thus produce smaller amounts of more valuable wool. More sheep could be grazed over land they would crop bare in a year, for a larger volume of less valuable wool. The land which was grazed out each year succumbed quickly to drought. The land which was grazed in careful rotation might not succumb for as long as four or five years, for the unbroken root systems of the plants would hold the ground. One thing was certain. If the drought was long enough, sheep and cattle would, in their hunger, drag up the roots of the herbage, their sharp hooves would loosen the topsoil, and it would begin to blow away in the wind. The grasslands the earliest settlers saw had never been cropped by ruminant animals. No sharp hooves had ever disturbed the soil. It looked rich and indestructible, but in reality it was one of the most delicately balanced environments on the planet.

Cattle require much larger supplies of protein than sheep. They could not prosper on the plains except where pockets of heavy soil and low-lying land allowed for more luxuriant grass and the reliable saltbush. They, too, were bred to calve in the spring, nursed through their first summer, and then shipped away to some richer land where they could be fattened for the butcher. The calculus of risk in raising them was simple. It might not rain enough in the winter to produce the long grass they required. If it did not, the cows would be only marginally fertile, their calves stunted, and few would survive the heat of summer. Those that did would be less valuable because of the scrawny muscles built
ranging long distances to find nourishment. They would be sold to meat canners at a marginal price. Moreover, in their struggle for life they would degrade the land in one progression of seasons. Sometimes the saltbush they chewed to the roots did not return for decades. Sometimes the land eroded so badly that the treasured saltbush was gone for good. No matter how one planned to coax an increase from the land, it was a gamble in which the odds could suddenly change drastically.

The first generation of settlers took up vast tracts of land. Two hundred and fifty thousand acres, three hundred thousand, half a million acres; such tracts allowed an owner to graze thirty to forty thousand sheep, and a good-sized herd of cattle, while still possessing some room to rotate the grazing of the flocks and herds. Wool was light in relation to its value, easy to transport to distant markets, and after the invention of refrigeration, meat was also a profitable export to densely populated Europe. Those who planned their enterprises well grew rich enough to see out the lean years of losses or low earnings during recurring cycles of drought. Even so, many gambled on the wrong hunches about the seasons, and saw their lands fall into the hands of the land and finance companies who had been their bankers and mercantile agents. As much as forty percent of the plains was held by banks and land companies after the great drought of the 1890s and the fearful agricultural depression which accompanied it. There it remained until after 1900, when politicians in the newly federated Australia had to wrestle with the concentration of land ownership. One of the recurring themes in Australian political life was the longing of the landless for the independence of the family farm, and their hatred for the privilege they saw accruing to the owners of huge grazing properties. While the nature of the land and the economics of its exploitation required large holdings and considerable capital investment, voters clung to the myth that small-scale farming was possible and they regularly elected state governments committed to breaking up and reallocating large holdings. By 1914, much of the richer land in more fertile
and well-watered areas had been broken up into smaller holdings, and all that remained were the great grazing leases on the western plains. In 1919, a grateful country turned to allocating land from these leases to the soldiers who had made the Australian name legendary for valor during the First World War.

In 1919, land and grazing was the traditional source of wealth for a nation which had achieved one of the highest per capita incomes in the world from the growth and export of wool and wheat. Land ownership was the principal source of status. Families that had grown rich in commerce progressed quickly to the life of gentlemen farmers. The large acreages of graziers carried more status than the struggling family farms of wheat farmers. The work of the grazier might be lonely and arduous, but he was seen as living life on a heroic scale, while the settled life of the wheat farmer returned less profit and seemed domestic and lacking in adventure. The great sheep and cattle stud properties where the best bloodlines were preserved and the greatest breeding animals were carefully tended carried the names of ancient great estates in England and Scotland, and hinted at pretensions to the life of the English country gentry.

The soldier settlers carried with them a strange mixture of feelings about the England the Australian rich emulated so sedulously. They scorned “the bloody brass hats,” the English military leadership they correctly blamed for the suffering and slaughter of war in the trenches in France. They laughed at Mayfair accents but spoke fondly of Blighty. Piccadilly, Leicester Square, and Westminster were the center of the political world for them. Horrible as the experience of battle had been, the journey from Australia, the experience of England and the Continent, and the sense of epic participation in momentous world events filled them with pride and inspired a collective and treasured sense of history.

Whenever they gathered together for the working bees that became a way of life as each new western land lease acquired a house, or sheepyards, or sheds for shearing, they talked about the
1914–1918 War. Sometimes solemn, sometimes ribald, they refought the battles. Each one learned where the other had been at Ypres, at Passchendaele, at Vimy, on the Menin Road, or with what outfit at Gallipoli. Heads would nod about tactical blunders that had cost lives needlessly. Arguments would break out about which regiments had been to the right or left in the line. Maps would be drawn in the red soil and places marked where this man was wounded or that friend died. There would be bursts of sardonic laughter about the stupidity of the high command and the inefficiency of the desk types who lived in luxury far from battle and spent their lives drawing up ridiculous military regulations. Generally they respected the Germans, despised the French (“the bastards wouldn’t fight”), condescended to the inability of the British (“the poor bloody Poms”) to manage a hard and dangerous life in a harsh environment, and reserved judgment on the Americans.

The chance to acquire title to a western land lease was the chance of a lifetime. In the expansive environment of the 1920s, men who felt lucky to be alive looked at the plains and dreamed about finally achieving economic independence. Perhaps, if things went well, their children could live the life of Australia’s pastoral elites. For the returned soldiers, class consciousness was more or less set aside, but most knew they wanted private schools for their children, fashionable clothes for their wives to wear to the races, a fancy horse or two in the stables, and freedom from worry about money.

The voices that exclaimed over the follies of brass hats or swore poetically about the stubborn ways of sheep and cattle did so in a melange of accents. Some carried a Scots burr, some a trace of a Yorkshire flat
a
; some spoke grammatically and displayed the manners produced by attendance at one of Australia’s private schools. Most spoke broad Australian: picturesque in image, laced with the rhyming slang of Cockney London and the poetic black humor of the Irish. Their manners and their clothes were deliberately working-class. At night when they sat with their
wives beside their crackling static-blurred radios, they waited for Big Ben to chime and then heard the impeccable British accents of the BBC announcer reading the news. With that voice they absorbed a map of the world which placed their near neighbor, Japan, in the Far East, and located distant Turkey in the Near East. So far as Australia was concerned its map was also clear and idiosyncratic. There were Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide on the southeast coast, and the bush. Other places existed—small country towns, the new federal capital planned at Canberra, the Snowy Mountains with their huge areas of snow and ice, industrial seaports like Newcastle, near the coalfields. They did not register because there were really only two places in the westerner’s consciousness: the bush, and the metropolis at the end of the railway line where the wool was sold.

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