Long before there were ‘gap years’ and Contiki tours for the young and restless; there was a thing called “working your way around Australia’’ – present day grey nomads call it doing the big lap. But in the 70’s it was a rite of passage – pack up the panel van with a few sparse possessions, leave plenty of room for the grog, have a vague idea of where you are heading and a bloke somewhere in the vicinity that had promised a few weeks work and Bob’s yer uncle. And so it was a lanky lad from the bush set off with his mate in the now infamous purple valiant to do a bit of grape-picking as the opening salvo on life’s great adventure.
A book reading, music playing blonde in pigtails definitely wasn’t part of the grand scheme – but the rest as they say – is ancient history! Except for the question – how did I get to be here? A question which floats in the ether, never quite dissipating, it flares intermittently and unexpectedly – most often at times of sheer frustration. Like – when the cows get through the electric fence onto the turnip crop and no amount of cajoling, chasing, yelling, swearing or the eventual removal of the t-shirt to wave furiously at the recalcitrant creatures has any effect – apart from highly amusing the neighbouring farmer silently watching from higher up the hill. Or the broken leg sustained attempting to roll and treat a cow down with milk fever - drag self to the house, call a friend to come and milk then drive self to the emergency room at the hospital – only to have the missing-in-action husband note the crutches leaning against the door on his return and casually ask if I’d had a bad day! The list goes on, but you get the picture – not quite the life my 15 year old self imagined. When you grow up ‘in town’’ there is much you take for granted. Like footpaths to walk on, street lighting at night, a shop around the corner and water that just always comes out of the tap.
My Wimmera towny lifestyle could not have been more different to the darling ones – apart from the mutual benefit of dad’s called Bill. Mine – Bill the younger – leftwing blue collar worker, jack of all trades, talented musician
and exceptionally well read. The darling ones – Bill the elder – right-wing, fourth generation farmer and religious Weekly Times reader. There was in fact, exactly one week between their birthdays, but my Dad always referred affectionately to the other as “old Bill”.
My first visit ‘home’ to the family farm, deep in the Otway ranges could only be described as awesome – it’s the mid 70’s and awesome still had meaning. A long drive from my home at the foot of the Grampians, we travelled continuously south, across the flat western district plains where sheep grazed and early winter crops pushed their way through to the sunlight. Winding through the rocky outcrops of the volcanic Stony Rises, eventually the landscape opened up to lush dairy country and we arrived in Colac – not far now, so I thought. As we wound our way up and down, then even further up through the soaring mountain ash’s, occasional pine plantation and farms that were so steep it was hard for a flatlander to comprehend how people could farm them. Then across ‘the ridge’, and ultimately down towards the sea; and by now its pitch black, freezing cold and I’m in another universe. The road along the Glenaire valley hugs the hillside, and lights’ twinkling from an occasional farmhouse provides reassurance that civilization exists.
Finally we were home, a roaring fire, mountains of food and my future extended family; who surely must have taken one look and wondered what the cat dragged in. Bill the elder, lounging laconically on his orange vinyl chair at the kitchen table, rolly between his leathered fingers while Mable fusses making cups of tea. A sleepless night as a possum screams from the tree outside my bedroom window and there is no reassuring street light filtering through the blinds – just blackness and howling wind. My first day and glimpse of the future involves notions of heifers (which are?), marking lambs (which is?), fickle water supplies and outdoor loos. I sensed things were grim in the farming world – talk of pits being dug to bury worthless cows as they were shot because it wasn’t worth the cost of taking them to market. Things were fixed, made do, rather than replaced with unaffordable new. Neighbour helped neighbour, shared equipment, a yarn and got on with it.
so commenced two very important life lessons:
1. Every human pursuit has its own language – and if you don’t know and understand it you cannot join or contribute to the conversation
2. Farmers may well be the salt of the earth, but it’s a tough gig and resilience matters – remembering this is the 70’s and resilience hadn’t been invented yet!
I often reflect on the soldier settlement programs so enamoured by government’s post both World Wars and maybe they were onto something. If you wanted to feed the masses cheaply who better than those hardened survivors of Gallipoli, the trenches of the Western Front or the fetid jungles of Borneo to withstand the vagaries of weather, pestilence and global markets! But I have also come to know and appreciate the extraordinary strength of the women who are the life and business partners, workmates and councillors to these men born in a farmer’s skin. Whether we share wine or tea, tears or laughter – I remain eternally grateful for the happenstance that led me here.