Wide Brown Land
by Barbara Gurney
‘I’m going,’ said Max. ‘I’ll be out the back paddock, got to check the fence. See ya.’
‘Bye love, see you for lunch.’ Julie waved as the quad bike started. ‘Stay safe,’ she yelled.
Buddy’s tail wagged ceaselessly, flapping across the fumes from the exhaust, making spurts of smoke signals. Max rode alongside the boundary fence for ten minutes, turned left by the empty water tank and became a spot in Julie’s vision. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, imagining Buddy poking his nose under Max’s arm and Max telling the dog to ‘stop that’ while what he really wanted to say was – 'thanks mate'.
In the last few months they had struggled with their emotions as the dry wind that whipped up dust into circles of misery blew across the empty paddocks. Their marriage was strong, but it was a constant effort to buoy each other through the ever burdening drought. They pushed individual dread behind a smile, scared unless once the fear behind their false joy was spoken, they would be sent into a bottomless pit of unrecoverable wretchedness.
Many evenings they sat reading as the hours ticked away until bedtime beckoned. If the wind momentarily ceased, they would pause from absorbing the words on the page, and with a glance at each other, hope that perhaps this time it was the calm before the long awaited storm. Too many books had been read as they waited for the rain - waiting to be saved from disaster. Their bookcase was full of other people’s dreams bound into words for people like Max and Julie to read while they waited to fulfil their own dreams.
Julie knew it was useless to polish away the dust on the surfaces, but just as Max was compelled to examine sturdy fences she needed to be busy. Picking up her husband’s choice of reading from last night it caught against the arm of the chair and fell to the floor.
‘Damn!’ She retrieved the open poetry book from the floor. ‘My Country! That’s surely appropriate. By Dorothea Mackellar. I remember learning that at school.’ Perched on the arm of the couch, Julie started reading. When she came to the second verse, the words became familiar.
‘I love a sunburnt country.’
Her particular piece of countryside had been green when Julie arrived as a new bride. The property spread as far as the eye could see - from Bill Turner’s fences in the north to the other side of Murchison Road. The old farmhouse that was now theirs was tucked away at the far end of Max’s family farm. She had been so proud - a farmer’s wife! She wanted to live all her days in the country.
Julie read out aloud, ‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains.’
She rose from the chair and walked to the window. Pulling aside the curtains, she gazed into the distance. Somewhere on those ‘sweeping plains’ was the love of her life. Max would be driving the beat up quad bike around the fence-line looking for breaks. In the past few weeks he had been relentlessly drawn to this mundane and unnecessary routine. The hand-feeding of their stock didn’t take all day, and Max had to do something or he would go mad. Circling his precious ground brought mixed emotions; glad to be active, sad to see the topsoil slowly disappearing in the hungry wind.
Julie let the curtains drop back as she leaned against the doorframe. She tucked one hand under her hair and twirled it around her damp fingers. Then, releasing the long brown hair, she shook her head making her hair flick backwards and forwards across closed eyes. She dug her fingernails into the soft cover of the small book and sighed. It had to rain soon; she couldn’t stand this heat for much longer.
Outside a magpie squawked with delight as it found something to eat under her withering passionfruit vine and she watched him fly off into the cloudless blue sky of summer.
‘Of ragged mountain ranges,’ she read.
There were hardly any mountains in this part of the sundrenched country. A few rocky outcrops ran along their boundary and her eyes scanned the distance for the closest ones which would break up the monotony of the flat paddocks. A mirage of water ran in a shimmering line below the scattered rocks, just beneath the horizon.
When the children were small, they would often take a picnic out to those rocks. Summer rain would make little puddles ideal for Michael and Oliver to splash in. Wildflowers would cover the edges of the outcrop in the spring, making a bountiful scene which the young boys failed to appreciate. But they loved to toss the rocks that were the colour of burnt toast as far as they could. It was Julie and Max’s task to find the thrown rock and yell encouraging sounds back to the boys. Cold roast lamb sandwiches, fruit from the backyard garden and warming cordial were consumed in a hurry so that another game could be invented.
Only the lizards would be enjoying the hot rocks today; sunning themselves until evening fell quickly, turning the ground cold and unforgiving.
Julie could feel the heat rising in the room and she flapped the book in an attempt to move some air. Recommencing the reading brought a lump to her throat, and the words came out in broken pieces of longing.
‘Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.’
If only, thought Julie. A flood I could handle right now. They’d had enough of this drought. Nerves were frayed within a breath of snapping. Long range forecasts were checked every day and the computer was becoming used to being sworn at in a fury of frustration. Farmers prayed for rain; farmers wives prayed for the farmer.
If rain came, Max wouldn’t have to aimlessly scour the fences pretending to be attentive when he was really dreaming of green pastures and fat sheep. Julie would then be happier to go to town and spend time with other wives from the district. As it was, they were all too scared to be honest with each other. You could see it in their faces. Their words were guarded, hesitant to talk of farming matters - skirting stock and feed issues, while adding flippant comments not believed by the listeners.
With the book clenched in one hand, Julie wandered into the kitchen and flicked the switch for another cup of tea. As the power surged into the water the next line presented itself.
‘I love her far horizons.’
She placed the book next to the kettle and pushed the back door open. The stiff wind flung pieces of leaf litter at her, causing her to squint. She could just see the sheep that were causing the dry dirt to billow into the air as the remains of the mornings feed were searched.
Max was out there somewhere. He had been away for over an hour. Yes, he would be in the east paddock by now. Beyond the house yard, beyond the barren paddocks and past the fence that Max would have checked, was that magical line called the horizon.
She recited the next line off by heart, ‘I love her jewel-sea.’
Their family had holidayed at Byron Bay before it was the trendy place it is today. The cool waters were always a shock as one tiptoed into the unfamiliar blue liquid. The boys loved the waves, which threatened to up-end them when their backs were turned. The sandcastles were contentedly left to be washed away in the afternoon tide as they returned to the corner shop for an icecream.
‘Jewel seas, yes, that’s a very apt description,’ declared Julie as she dipped the teabag in and out of the steaming cup of water. She acknowledged that the few times they had taken a holiday from the farm, she had been excited by it all, but she was always ready to go home - pleased to be in her own kitchen, her own bed, but most of all to be surrounded by the gum trees and sheep paddocks.
She returned to the compelling lines of the poem.
‘Her beauty and her terror.’
The simple line of the poem scattered multiple images as she considered the diversity of Australia. Seaside frivolity is left behind and in a few short hours one is in the midst of farming territory. Each person sees beauty in different scenes, but every mile of this huge country is worth exploring. From the glorious sunset filled beaches of the western boundary, across the central deserts, to tree lined Blue Mountains of the east, one can experience a unique environment. The beauty of it all surely outweighs the threat of dangers like bush fires, cyclones and floods. Monstrous crocodiles, dangerous spiders and the notorious snakes all had a part to play in the make-up of this unique land.
Julie stood outside the kitchen door, oblivious to the oppressive heat. She turned the little book over and re-read each line of the familiar verse. Tears dribbled into the corner of her eyes as the words evoked raw emotions. A deep breath escaped slowly as she scanned the paddocks again. This is mine. This is ours. We will make it. No matter what nature throws at us.
She knew many Australians before them had fought the land, and in harsher climates. Farming pulsed through their veins and they were not going to be the generation that gave up.
‘Cooee! I’m home.’
She closed the little book, brushed the back of her hand across her wet cheek and went to greet her husband. As she watched him stride across the dry ground, making miniature dust storms with every step, her heart spoke the next line of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem.
‘A wide brown land for me.’