Recently my wife, Mary and I drove down through NSW into Victoria and then West into the volcanic basalt plains of the Western District.
We stayed with friends at St Andrews, a village to the north east of Melbourne. Mac, an old school mate of mine and his artist wife, Deborah have created a haven as a bulwark against the spread of the city. Their garden is full of fruit trees and several vegetable garden areas that are aesthetically designed to be pleasing to the eye as well as producing high quality food.
Mac has been writing screenplays for the ABC for the last forty years, on many subjects, creating series around social issues and documentaries about first contacts between Europeans and Australian aboriginal nations, as well as several stand-alone movies. He is a man of deep empathy with a love of place and his connection to the Earth is evident when hearing him talk about his gardens and orchards.
Deborah trained as a print maker at RMIT and has had a long career as an artist. Many of her works concern the environment and depict native plants in their natural habitats. Deborah is part of one of the oldest pastoral dynasties in the Western Districts of Victoria. Her forebears came out from Scotland to Van Dieman’s Land in 1821, and after managing the estate of Captain Wood, in 1836 George Russell followed John Batman to Port Phillip and managed the Clyde Company as a partner. The Russell family and various nephews and cousins built up a pastoral empire in the Leigh river district, with such properties as Golf Hill, Mawallock, Stoneleigh, Elderslie, Carngham, Barunah Plains, Native Creek No1, and Langi Kal Kal.
Deborah grew up at Barunah Plains, a prominent fine wool merino stud. In speaking to her of those days of her young life I felt a deep connection to place in the way she expressed her love of the Barunah Plains landscape. As is often the case, over several generations large fortunes were made and through circumstance businesses are sold. Like many of the big pastoral holdings in the Riverine Plains of New South Wales, some of the big holdings in Western Victoria have been split up and sold. Some of this occurred as a result of government schemes for soldier settlement after the two World Wars, and further pressures during the drought in 1966/67 and the years of poor wool prices of the early 1970s and further economic pressure following the 1982 drought and the collapse of the Wool Reserve Price Scheme in 1989.
In 2009 Mac and Deborah’s home and lives were threatened by the Black Saturday fires. By a quirk of fate the wind changed minutes before they were engulfed and the fire edge became a long front being pushed by one hundred kilometre an hour winds. Villages to the east were destroyed and many of their friends lives were lost, in conditions that were fifty percent worse than any previous event.
After a very pleasant time renewing friendships we headed onto the ring road that runs around Melbourne and on to the freeway that by-passes Geelong, once the western boundary of European civilisation; the stepping stone to the land described by Major Thomas Mitchell as Australia Felix. Mitchell travelled out the Macquarie onto the Darling, trying to solve the riddle of the western flowing rivers of NSW and Victoria. The aboriginal communities of the Darling had suffered catastrophic illness, Mitchell observed grave mounds all the way along the Darling to its junction with the Murray.
The predominantly flat landscapes of Australia are indicative of immense ages of geological stability, during which the elevated ground has gradually been eroding. The forces of wind and water, heat and cold have been manifest in the landscape, creating complex depositional layers, some of which enclose deposits of coal, oil, gas and water. Soil building activity, vulcanism, tectonic upheaval, glaciation have been rare. The last time Australia experienced an ice sheet was approximately 270million years ago. Several volcanic lava flows have occurred as Australia drifted north at seven centimetres per year since breaking away from Gondwana. The Atherton tableland, Darling Downs, the Liverpool Plains and the volcanic plains of Western Victoria diminish in age from north to south. The last volcano in Victoria north of Warrnambool is estimated to have erupted only 32,000 years ago. Thus aboriginal people were living there during that time.
One of the highlights of the Great Ocean Road is the opportunity to marvel at the giant Mountain Ash (e.Regnans), and relictual antarctic beech myrtle (nothofagus cunninghami), blackwood (acacia melanoxylon), tree ferns and other associated communities of the Otway Ranges. It is extraordinary, and sobering to realise that some of these plant communities have been present for perhaps one hundred million years. (Individual trees are thought to live for up to five hundred years). That is, fifty million years before the Australian continent eventually broke away from Gondwana. The eucalypts of these ancient communities came much later as the drifting north gradually began to move into drier latitudes. Species such as Messmate Stringy bark (e.Obliqua), Brown Stringy bark (e. Baxter) and Mountain Ash (e. Regnans), Blue, Grey and Manna gums will also be found in some of these forests.
The Hopkins Falls in this area are a direct result of a lava flow crossing the path of the Hopkins river. The falls, although of modest height, are the widest in Australia and the Hopkins river drains a significant area of the basalt plains. These are the youngest soils in Australia.
The connections we make with people can often turn up interesting conversations and reveal stories that are part of our own. In my life I have met many inspiring people, who have just materialised at a time when I was looking for the next step in furthering my understanding of this extraordinary living Earth of which we are a part. I saw a woman looking at the Hopkins falls and for some reason I had a feeling she and I might share a common interest. This feeling was almost subliminal, and in fact it was my interest in her boots that sparked a conversation. It turned out that she was spending a large part of her remaining years getting people interested in propagating the Murrnong, or yam-daisy that aboriginal people used to farm and harvest in season, always leaving small plants to continue the cycle for the next year. This was a long-term agricultural crop grown with minimal disturbance and referred to by both Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth), and Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu). In some ways it was an early version of pasture cropping. If I hadn’t spoken to this lady I would never have known her story and vice versa. It is a mistake to think your stories are not interesting to others. We are a story-telling species and they are what connects us to each other and the landscapes in which we live.
I recall reading the account given by George Robertson to Governor La Trobe in1853 about his experiences on Wando Vale Station, in the Wannon in Western Victoria. He had taken up a run as the first European settler on it in 1839. Below is a quote from his report ….
“A rather strange thing is going on now. One day all the creeks and little watercourses were covered with a large tussocky grass, with other grasses and plants, to the middle of every watercourse but the Glenelg and Wannon, and in many places of these rivers; now that the only soil is getting trodden hard with stock, springs of salt water are bursting out in every hollow or watercourse, and as it trickles down the watercourse in summer, the strong tussocky grasses die before it, with all others. The clay is left perfectly bare in summer. The strong clay cracks; the winter rain washes out the clay; now mostly every little gully has a deep rut; when rain falls it runs off the hard ground, rushes down these ruts, runs into the larger creeks, and is carrying earth, trees, and all before it. Over Wannon country is now as difficult a ride as if it were fenced. Ruts, seven, eight, and ten feet deep, and as wide, are found for miles, where two years ago it was covered with tussocky grass like a land marsh. I find from the rapid strides the silk-grass has made over my run, I will not be able to keep the number of sheep the run did three years ago, and as a cattle station it will be still worse; it requires no great prophetic knowledge to see that this part of the country will not carry the stock that is in it at present – I mean the open downs, and every year it will get worse, as it did in VDL.; and after all the experiments I worked with English grasses, I have never found any of them that will replace our native sward. The day the soil is turned up, that day the pasture is gone for ever as far as I know, for I had a paddock that was sown with English grasses, in squares each by itself, and mixed in every way. All was carried off by the grubs, and the paddock allowed to remain in native grass, which returned in eight years. Nothing but silk- grass grew year after year, andI suppose it would be so on to the end of time. Dutch clover will not grow on our clay soils; and for pastoral purposes the lands here are getting of less value every day, that is, with the kind of grass that is growing in them, and will carry less sheep and far less cattle.” (Robertson, 1853, in Bride, Letters from Victorian Pioneers).
Here was a man with a sensitive relationship to the land and yet the constant grazing of domestic livestock caused the complete breakdown of a vegetation system that had been operating under aboriginal management for thousands of years. The problem was the desire in the minds of men to make a profit while understanding almost nothing about how the land functioned.
Its frightening to think something so stable could be so changed in such a short time. The aboriginals, devastated by the diseases brought with the white settlers must have looked on aghast at what was happening to their ‘country’.
When I was twenty I worked on South Boorook, Mortlake, Victoria, at the time (1970), the premier Hereford stud in Australia. The Allen family were great to work for and very appreciative of our efforts. In that time there were many windbreaks of Lambertiana cypresses, planted in belts all over the mostly flat volcanic plains.
Travelling from Port Fairy to Mortlake, on our way back to St Andrews, we noticed that in many places the big windbreaks had all died and in some areas had been blown down. On enquiring, we were told that the cypresses had a fungous in the tips and when it was observed, it was too late.
It will be a massive and expensive job cleaning it all up as they were all double fenced. This is a classic case of what can happen if a pathogen attacks a monoculture, and yet I feel sure that the trees were planted on good advice at the time of planting.
The trees had ended their relationship with the earth, except for the potential of recycling their nutrients either by fire or the long process of oxidation.
However, a connection I had made forty seven years ago was rekindled. Mary encouraged me to call in at South Boorook to see if there was anyone at home who might have known me back in 1970. We called in and met Lisa Allen, Peter’s wife. She called out to Peter who was in the kitchen about to have lunch. They gave us a heart-warming welcome that made me realise how strong the connection was even after all that time. Being open to ideas such as relationships and new knowledge is the passport to experiences that expand our minds. If I had not heeded my wise wife’s encouragement to renew an old friendship, we would have missed a highlight of our little holiday.
Conversations and connections count.