In my research for Secrets From The Dust, the landscape and environment of the Australian outback always seemed to have such a significant impact on the lives of the peoples living there, that I had to treat it as if it were a separate character. At one time it can be welcoming and bountiful with plants and wildlife. But very quickly it can bake hot as an oven and be unrelentingly hostile.
Streams run from rocks and ridges during heavy rains. Wild figs grow from crevices, and water collects in rock holes known as billabongs, that can be twenty to thirty feet across and as deep. Flocks of budgerigars, Lincoln parrots, pink and grey galahs, kangaroos and wallabies come to drink. The sharp spinifex grass shoots up several feet high and can clog the radiators of vehicles driving through the brush.
In times of drought, the red soil hardens and cracks, and the spinifex grows jaundiced from thirst. The needle leaves on desert oaks, some more than fifty feet high, hang vertically to escape the full effects of the sun and reduce water evaporation in the hot winds. Red-sapped eucalypts shed their leaves and branches so that their stems might at least survive the drought and rekindle life once it is over. An observant traveller might pass by a flock of budgerigars that had died from drought, their little green bodies heaped under a slender desert poplar already being reclaimed by ants, mice, and a few crows that had survived. In places, hardy gum trees, mulga and malee scrub will dot the landscape. Many of these will survive the inevitable fires which erupt due to the tinder dry conditions, ready to sprout into life once rains come again.
So the lives of the farmers in my fictional outback town, Malee, were always under threat from natural disasters such as fires, floods, and drought, which in turn could lead to foreclosure or eviction. The Australian Outback farmers did not lead the relatively predictable lives of British farmers. Had Anne McDonald, the woman who together with her husband fosters the Aboriginal girl Margaret, realised that, it’s unlikely that she would have taken up the Australian governments assisted passage to become a ten pound pom, and migrate to the country after the 2nd World War to find a husband and a better life.
Below is a scene from the novel which depicts the harshness of the outback on the population.
Scene: The burning of Malee
There were thousands of square miles of malee trees, gum trees, and bushes which had not yet been cut back for farming. Before the dry spells they had enjoyed two seasons of good rains that had fuelled the explosive growth of spinifex and other grasses. The three dry seasons had shrivelled these back somewhat, but the one-day shower they had a month back had fuelled the growth again, and the grasses were now yellowed, crisped and dried combustibles, several feet high. The fires raced through these fields, threatening the homesteads, and the men helped each other to cut and back burn wide firebreaks around each others’ homesteads to prevent the flames from evicting them. When they felt their homes were safe, they went into the bush to join the fire services from Langley, neighbouring towns, and across the state, because all of them were volunteer firefighters. Let it burn, Nipper told Sean—the same thing he had told him when there had been smaller fires that might have burned off the combustibles and so prevented a larger disaster. His people had been practising firestick farming for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. They had carefully burned small parcels of land, and not only had this prevented larger fires, but it had encouraged the growth of new, lush, sweeter grasses, and this had allowed bush game to flourish. But the European farmers had always been against this; if it wasn’t knowledge that they had brought with them from their own lands, it was of no use. And so many of the early settlers had been forced off their land because the grass grew tough and bitter and was invaded by scrub, so their animals wouldn’t eat it, or large bush fires would claim it. Sean was no different. No, he had always said to Nipper. How can you let good land burn? Many of those farmers would have at some stage wanted to cut down them trees and hack out those bushes to provide more farmland, but they wanted to control the destruction; no chance fire was going to cheat them out of exercising their power over the land.
The fires lasted six months. At their height there were more than nine thousand fire fighters in the bush wrestling them. The only water for miles around was at the ‘McDonald and Nicolaides’ Underground Lake’, and millions of gallons of it were pumped out twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to douse the flames and dampen the land. When the men thought the fires were subsiding, a gush of hot wind or a cyclone would blow them onto another dry patch to start all over again. They jumped dry riverbeds and hedges, encircled towns and homesteads like marauding warriors, and sometimes they would hide unseen, and then erupt from the belly of the earth to ambush those who were fighting them. That was how fire razed the Nicolaideses’ homestead. Sean had helped them to cut the firebreaks around their homestead, from which Aithra refused to emerge, weeping over the basket of the stolen child. But it was safe, they thought; they had done enough. Then one evening, whilst the weary Malee men were on their way home to take a few hours’ rest, they saw the flames licking around the base of the homestead as if testing it for taste, but it hadn’t caught yet. “Aithra, Aithra,” Costos had called, but she refused to answer him or come out. The men tried to hold him back, but his buffalo strength and determination were too great, and he broke free and charged into the homestead. And that’s when the tongue of the fire decided that it relished what it had tasted, and it devoured the Nicolaideses’ homestead like a glutton.
The fire left the smell of molten charcoal hanging in the air and blocked out the sun with thick black clouds that at other times would have been a welcome sign of rain. Then finally, when no one expected any respite, the flames stopped their eating frenzy as suddenly as they had begun it, their hunger sated. Only then did all have a chance to take stock of what had been lost: the whole region’s harvest for the year, except the little already transported, had been incinerated; thousands of square miles of farmland, scrub, and bush had given way to vast expanses of ash-covered red sand and blackened tree stumps; to the south where they were reared, the stiffened, charred carcasses of thousands of sheep and cattle littered the fields; the area’s wildlife had been burnt or scattered; twenty-three homesteads were no more; and thirty-seven men, women, and children were missing or dead, including Costos and Aithra Nicolaides, whose bodies were never recovered. It was only after the funeral service for the Nicolaideses that Sean noticed there was no water running into the streams, and when he checked the underground lake, it was as dry as a salt pan. Even with six months of pumping water onto the land, twenty-four hours a day, Sean sensed that the vast supplies could not have been depleted. It was as if the earth had opened up and drunk it all, and he wondered what trickery, which they called magic, the Aboriginals had played on them all. The community for miles around were tired and numbed, but after six months of fighting to save much of what had been lost in the first few weeks, they did not have the strength to touch the tapestry of their shredded hopes, and it would take some time for them to stitch together their wounds. Sean spent days driving over the land, surveying it, and in a strange way it didn’t seem like a land defeated. Blackened gum trees stood up boldly in the vast emptiness, and the land seemed at peace with itself, as if in some long overdue hibernation. And although he had some sense of this, Sean McDonald was from a people whose spiritual link to the land had been severed many thousands of years ago, and so he was already planning how he would tame and control this land, and eke out a living for himself once again.
What other novels have you enjoyed, where the landscape plays a major role? I can think of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
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