The Calling of the Bush

by wandering freditor / Feb 20, 2009 / 0 comments


I remember a time before Georges One and Two, or numbers 41 and 43 if you prefer, when the term bush did not have you thinking in terms of “things Presidential”. I was a littlie then, in primary school, and the teacher would sit on his foreboding desk and read from a weighty tome of Australian bush poems. Or it was from a dog-eared and battered version of While the Billy Boils (a 'billy' is a metal pot, a bit like a paint pot, in which you boil water in the bush). I sat at my desk, hands supporting my chin, ears wide open, seldom distracted by the boy beside me fiddling with the inkwell which sat like a tiny blue lake in our common bench desk, and was transported to the bush as the teacher began to read.

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away …

There was silence in the classroom and indeed you could have heard a pin drop, not that anyone would have had the temerity to deliberately do so, for Mr Candy’s glare was withering. We were all transfixed by the poems and stories about our wide brown land, our sunburnt country, and its epic figures as conjured up for us by ‘Banjo’ Patterson and Henry Lawson. The poetry session was the highlight of my week.

Now I was a Banjo boy myself because his poems were genuinely funny as well as strong of image and after all, it was Banjo who introduced me to my first swear word. "Murder, bloody murder, yelled the man from Ironbark". The teacher had actually said that word and I am sure we all looked at each other with that ooh aah look which signified amazement. (Oh yes, dear reader, we were blissfully innocent in those days!) But no, it was much more than liking poems because they introduced me to swearing. Those poems  introduced us to the lure of the bush. Not just any bush, mind you, for we lived at that time on the outskirts of Perth, Western Australia, and the bush was all around, the gums and the wattles, the banksias trees and the paper barks. We cut down trees just for fun, we saw snakes and spiders and goannas (lizards). No, for us, the bush of Lawson and Patterson was the area beyond our fringe, the area before you reached the Outback or went “beyond the black stump” or even “back o' Bourke”. It was a place of wilderness and danger which spawned great bushmen like Clancy of the Overflow, about whom bushies wrote letters “with a thumbnail dipped in tar”. They were drovers of cattle who crossed the mountains and forded the flooded rivers, fought  physical battles on the land of the free selectors (the landed gentry) merely so the distraction would allow the sheep or cattle they were droving, more time to find meagre feed during the drought. They were uniquely Australian in character, in an Australian landscape that we all knew was ‘out there’. There were ‘winners’ like Clancy but there were also losers, or just people “down on their luck” for such characters were in the poems too. They were generally characters on the Lawson pages, for many of his stories and poems dwelt on loneliness, bleakness and heartbreak

Across the stony ridges, across the rolling plain, Harry Dale the drover comes riding home again…
Up Queensland way with cattle, he’s travelled regions vast, and many months have vanished since the home-folk saw him last.

Harshness and isolation, a place where death was a constant companion through thirst, injury or snake-bite, a man’s world where the women waited in lonely homesteads, gazing over the red, dusty land, looking forever into the distance for company, a hand over the eyes to ward off the hurtful, baking sun. Yes, that too was ‘the bush’ but it was not a bush that we knew, although we felt that somehow we knew that bush from the poems and stories that we heard in the classroom.

“Today I will read Clancy of the Overflow" said Mr Candy, and my heart leapt up because it was always a favourite of mine and I knew some of the words off by heart. And as the poem went on, and my gaze went out the window to where the leaves of a great gum shivered in the breeze, I willed myself to be in the bush with Clancy, only to hear that clever Banjo had me in mind all the time;

And somehow I’d rather fancy, that I’d like to change with Clancy.

Oh, I was ready to leave suburbia and go and live in the bush as a drover. No policeman or fireman for me.

The words went on, in almost hypnotic fashion, and cemented in me a love of the bush and all that was mysterious about it. And yet, the bush was strangely comforting as well, in the way of belonging and feeling familiar. After all, I was an Australian, albeit a 'New Australian'.

And the bush has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes, and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid, of the sunlit plain extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

I felt right at home in the literary bush.

We landed in Sydney on one of those ember mornings with the sun barely risen, when you know the day will be a hot one. There is little that is special about Sydney airport and as with so many other cities, in the distance, through the haze, were the tall, Lego-like buildings that told nothing of the beautiful harbour beyond. There was the nasally twang of welcoming officials, that home-coming "G'day", and a busy Beagle scampered around the bags drawing looks of trepidation from the landed Muslim flyers. We were soon in our children’s car, on the way to our abode, my feet feeling a little fidgety as they searched for non-existent pedals and my eyes looked for the wrongly positioned mirror. Yes, here in Australia they still drove on the left hand side. Progress was orderly, the streets were tidy and the ‘dog-leg-lifting' grafitti was as unintelligible to me as anywhere else in the world. We sat at home and talked, and for a moment I chuckled to myself at how Australians add a ‘y’ or an ‘o’ to exude intimacy. “Saw Clarky last week, and he had been talking to Thommo” …and then I asked “And how is Johnno?” slipping into the idiom as easily as engaging fourth gear. “Mate” too came easily for mate-ship remains the tap-root of ‘Australianism’ and later, in the shops I marvelled how the just out of high school sales staff addressed me by my Christian name when we had hardly been introduced! The shop windows and stations, the buses and the taxis, the buildings and the malls, were all so similar that if someone had told me I was in Miami or in Bournmouth, I would have believed them for even the dress was casual and beachy. It was only a day later, when we shot out of Sydney on a freeway fashioned in North America or parts of Europe, that I first saw something different. There was ‘the bush’, and then I suddenly knew that I was really home.

In reality, Australia is one of the most urbanized countries in the world with 95% of its population living around its coastal fringe, but the poets, writers and film directors, have mythologized the bush so that at heart, there is quite a bit of Crocodile Dundee in every Australian. A beer or a Shiraz by a barbie in the bush, is as familiar to an Australian as an igloo to an Eskimo, something that sets Australians apart from the newly arrived who stay on its fringes, at designated picnic spots. We ‘dinki-di’s (the genuine Australian article) venture further afield, following a bush track till we are swallowed up by the bush and find our own place of solace to have our bush barbie “away from civilization”. Sometimes the kookaburras laugh at our folly and the crows always say Faark, Faark, in their mocking way, as though wondering why we seek to travel ‘so far off the beaten track’. Like clothed Adams and Eves, we cherish our own isolated spots in the bush, knowing full well that we are watched by serpents and other fatal blighters and biters. We respect the bush, for we know its dangers, but we do not fear to venture into it, and in many places we welcome it to our porch and veranda, as we know only too well when bush-fires strike. It is vast, and easy to get lost, or disoriented, and there are all sorts of names in the bush to ward off the timid, Snake Gully, Dead Horse Gap or Dingo Creek. That too was reflected in our school room prose and on those occasions, I involuntarily drew my feet up, and my skin raised itself like sandpaper.

Down along the Snakebite river
Where the Overlanders camp
Where the serpents are in millions
All of the most deadly stamp.

Yes, the Australian bush is a place, but it is more than that, for being in the bush, is also a very much 'a feeling'. A bit like surfing on the land, if you like, for as you can rejoice at being in, or on, a wave, and like a wave, the bush encompasses, surrounds and smothers. Oh yes, and the sharks and snakes conjure up a similar terror when you are ‘out there’, all alone!  

The grey-green of the gum leaves was shrouded in mist as we drove towards Mittagong and I imagined the wallabies (small kangaroos) carefully picking their way through the rocks and the scrub, looking for the morning’s succulent shoots while already the nocturnal possums and wombats had sought sanctuary from the coming heat of the day. Everywhere, the foot-soldier of the bush, the ubiquitous gum tree, stood looking like a gathering in one of those sepia photos of Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War. There is no uniformity of tree, none of the neatness of a European or North American forest, where whole regiments of trees stand like troops on parade. Nor is there the impenetratable darkness, for usually you can look between the trees in the bush as the leaves are usually slight and slender, like a shower of thyme or rosemary flakes, so that a stipple of light always manages to get through to the under-growth. But their individuality is in their trunks. Sometimes the gum trees – and there are an infinite variety of eucalyptus gum trees – are small, sinewy striplings, but sometimes they are mighty and robust, tall and majestic like sequoias, or otherwise like oaks, gnarled and twisted with age, full of holes in their trunks for the wood pigeons to roost. These are the mighty red gums, or the river gums, with boughs sprouting at all angles and directions, like those drawings of a virile family tree. These are the gums that fringe the inland water courses and provide the shade for resting cattle and sheep, and the boughs to which youths attach a rope to swing from the river banks like Tarzan and lob into the cooling river waters on a hot summer’s day. They are the quintessential gums of a thousand calendars that the butcher or greengrocer used to give away at Christmas time, for there is no mistaking their Australianess.

Once the bush echoed the sound of bright and brazen parrots, the rosella and galah, the lorikeet and the sulphur crested, but also to the bushman’s axe. Alas, the latter is no more, long replaced by the rasp of the chainsaw, and while timber still is cut and harvested, and “Greenies” continue to fight battles to prevent logging in old growth forests, much of the gum harvest is now for wood-chips. "Back then", the gum provided the planks and floor-boards for homesteads and the pit props for mines, the fence-posts for farms and letter-boxes, the poles for the telegraph lines, the wood for cooking fires and coping with the cold. Throughout Australia there were ‘timber towns’, where the sawmill provided work and sustenance, but much of that has now changed forever. In the old homes in the cities, people still rip up the linoleum of yesteryear, and find underneath pristine boards of Jarrah and Karri, Blackbutt and Tasmanian oak. Then with a bit of polish, they look as though they were sawn yesterday. For make no mistake, the gum is a hardy tree, for the bushfires that kill almost all other species, may burn the gum, but come the spring, there will be new green leaves and bright clusters of white and red flowers over blackened trunks, and the sound of bees a-gathering. And in two or three seasons, all trace of the fire will have gone. No, the gum trees are as hardy as the people who farm and work the harsh Australian landscape. with its “droughts and flooding rains”.  

As we neared Goulburn the gum trees thinned for the land had been cleared of brethren many years ago to make way for grazing lands. And the sun came out into a hurtful blue sky which even in the car, made sunglasses mandatory apparel. In the undulating countryside, the blue gum haze washed the hills in a lavender blue. In the paddocks, stout specimens stood, garnering shade for stock. The paddocks here were browner, the grass a leached yellow, and here and there were the brown-grey fingers of a long dead gum tree which had met with lightening or the ring-barker, but in some sort of final defiance, still stood erect. The drought had bitten here, many times. And always among the clumps of distant trees, were the farmhouses with their grey corrugated iron roofs, surrounded by their grey corrugated iron sheds, mustering yards, farming equipment, and the detritus of the years, made possible by a surfeit of land. The rusting tractor, the weed-filled bailer, the now bullet-holed, discarded water tank, all lying spent, dead but unburied. Nearby the windmill creaked, spindly and tired, its blades turning lazily like those of a landed passenger jet, yet still pumping life-giving water into a stained brown trough. A warming wind picked up the dust and moved it in a little auburn cloud, past a cluster of sheep looking like ice-floes in a sea of grass. There too in the paddocks were the trails to the water-trough, moulded by the years, and thousands of hooves, like streets to the city centre. In winter, in a good season filled with rain, these paddocks would be lush and green with feed, but now they looked barren and harsh, with brown water low in the ochre gravel dams. Gullies, like crags of parched skin, ran to the edge of the dam, craving no doubt, the flow of water to soften again the soil and give succour to the parched swamp-grass along its sides. Two ducks floated in the dam as though they had dropped in briefly on their way to a distant lake. Almost as in the "old days" when we humans sought a motel to rest up during a long journey. Black Dog Creek said the road-sign, Five Mile Creek said another. We pushed on.

The highway was relentless, kilometre after kilometre, cutting through hill-sides or sweeping around them, with fences along both sides to show where I could not set foot, as much as to keep the stock in. Surprisingly, I saw few ‘road-kills’ beside the highway, kangaroos, rabbits or wombats, who had foolishly crossed the line. Maybe it was the drought, maybe they had come to terms with the highway whose traffic never died, day or night, or maybe they had simply realized that there was simply no need to leave the surrounding bush. Nor did I see any of those yellow motorist advisory signs warning that you might meet a kangaroo, wombat, crocodile or platypus during “the next 10 miles”. I am sure that they had all been moved to the souvenir shops in the cities to sell to the gullible!  

I felt a thrill to see a farmer ploughing fire-breaks, his tractor blowing up great billows of orange dust, for it took me back to the classroom, and Henry Lawson’s poem, The Fire at Ross’s Farm. That had been set on a Christmas Day, long ago, and here I was, travelling in the bush on Christmas Eve, so somehow the recall seemed apt.

Like the sounds of distant musketry, it crackled through the breaks
And o’er the flat of silver grass, it hissed like angry snakes,
It leapt across the flowing streams, and raced the pastures broad
It climbed the trees and lit the boughs, and through the scrubs it roared.

I recalled fighting many a bushfire, the smoke that seared your eyes, how you turned your back on the flames, but only for a moment to draw breath, and then resumed your beating at the flames with a green tree branch or a wet jute sugar bag. How soot and cinders flew all around, the popping noises and the crackling, the sudden flare of fired grass, the roar of the wind, and the flames that raced over your head in the tree-tops. And all the time you listened for the call of “Leave it” or “Run”, as you raced back to assume a new line. Back, always back, like soldiers to defend a line, to make a fire-break. Men with shovels for throwing sand, or beating the flames, or men harnessed to tin back-packs, pushing a lever up and down to pump out a pitiful, piddling stream of water. Once we fled into a river, our noses just above the water to avoid the choking smoke, ducking down to cleanse our eyes, and we only swam ashore when all was blackened, and flames still licked at the hardiest trees. Oh yes, we grew up knowing all about the importance of fire-breaks.

Now the highway between Sydney and Melbourne bypasses most towns and only occasionally there are the old hotels, with their overhanging verandas, front bars for men and, if they were rather posh, a Ladies lounge where the ‘girls’ could get a Port ‘o Gaff or a sweet Sherry. In some places in the old towns, there are still the hitching poles and wide streets where the old Cobb and Co stage-coach came, or where timber cutters could turn around a bullock train. Now of course, some of the old shops have been turned into ‘tourist bakeries’ and coffee shops, but in the main, and fortunately, the old country town ‘look’ has remained. The old garage is now a place selling ‘ante queues’ and the old stock-and-station premises now sell chutneys, jams and ‘local craft’. There is still the “Unity Hall”, or the Country Women’s Association hall, and a dull red water truck still stands outside the brick depot of the Country Fire Authority. The little parks remain well cared for, the War Memorial too, but the old swings and see-saw only get an occasional workout. Today’s kids want something more challenging. But in the busy rush to make our destination, it is nice to know that these oases of tranquillity of yester-year, still exist. And in these places, the habits of yester-year also continue, as we found motorists still flashing their head-lights as we approached Holbrook, and we instinctively slowed down. And sure enough, there hiding in some just-off-the-road bushes, was the local policeman, set about catching the unwary speedster. There is still that wonderful “Irish-ness” in Australians that thumbs its nose at authority in order to help a mate.

Near Glenrowan, where Australia’s most infamous bush-ranger, Ned Kelly, met his death, there is now a modern day equivalent hold-up merchant called McDonalds. And from the appearance of its surrounds, all sorts of travellers, in buses, trucks, cars and motor-cycles, are most willing to part with their cash. Like others, we lined up for our Mac-meal amid a bus load of Koreans, and jostled for space to sit down. We also lined up for space in the toilets that smelled of carbolic and urine, clean though they were, the noise of the hand-dryer constant, like an aeroplane coming in to land. How many patrons, I wondered, looked at the bush and saw nothing. Or saw the bush merely as a tedious obstacle which had to be endured in order to get to their destination. A melange of trees and fields, a veritable wasteland, dull and uninteresting. Ipods plugged in, a magazine on the knee, no thoughts of the men and women who lived here, the aboriginals who came first, then those who had cleared the bush and roamed the land, adapted to its harshness, harvested its plenty, struggled through drought. Did they not think of the hopes of the people who had come here full of promise, and whose tombstone to that promise was now a desolate brick chimney and hearth or a tumble-down, long abandoned farmhouse, still with its picket fence. Once someone would have planted flowers there, and raised kids. Had today’s travellers read any of the works of the chroniclers of the bush, Henry and Banjo, Kendall and Boldrewood? Did they care, or was their home so ‘city-fied’ that they saw the bush as an appendage, an appendix that served no useful purpose, but just happened to be there?

Near Seymour, we stopped at another roadhouse before the final run into Melbourne. Here the countryside had been prettied with small properties, modern, well kept houses, and boutique vineyards. I walked to the ice-cream refrigerator and saw him standing there, his thumb pushing up the brim of a weathered old Akubra hat, clearly grappling with the range of choice in ice-creams. He noticed me looking and jutted his chin in a silent acknowledgement that I too was waiting, then he made his decision and slid open the glass. He was clearly a farmer, with a brown face lined as though a score of creek-beds had settled in his skin and had hardened in the sun. He could have been 55, or 35, it was hard to tell. For a moment, in indecision, he ran a big forearm over his face like a grader, and I saw that his eyes were immersed in different folds, as though set by a riveter’s gun. He arched his eyebrows, which would have given a waxer a week’s work, and made his decision. He pulled out two cornettos, and half of his mouth grinned. “Too much bloody choice mate” he said in a deep, even tone, and I nodded and said in country-speak, “Too right mate”. I watched him walk towards the till, in his olive drab shirt, with a sweated back, olive drab pants, and his Bludstune boots which had only been polished at manufacture, now scored and burred, a statement of labour, not fashion. He moved slowly, but purposely, long practiced in the art of not expending energy needlessly, and when he paid at the till, his big hand went in to his pocket a few times and eventually he produced the exact coins. Here was a man of the bush, who worked stock, and the land, who was up with the sun, and had spent many days peering into it, searching the sky for signs of rain. Amongst his friends, he probably laughed at “city folks” like me, and he probably hadn’t read much Lawson or Patterson either. But I liked to think that if he heard their poems, over a beer at the pub after the crutching had been done, the feed stacked, and the fences mended, his face would have lit up at the passages, for he would have recognized them to be as true today, as then.

The bush thinned further till we saw the skyline of Melbourne in the distance, looking not unlike Sydney in the distance, trees, houses and then tall buildings. Even though I remain a ‘city boy’, I had only really felt ‘at home’ while driving through the bush.  And while I know that I would probably not choose to live in the bush, I would feel diminished if I could not see, or touch, or smell it, for it was the essence of Australia that you simply cannot put in a jar or capture in a photograph. Jars empty and photos fade. Banjo and Henry put the Australian bush in my head, indelibly, and those thoughts will never run dry. It was good to be home again.


Winfred Peppinck/Wandering Freditor is the Tales of Travelling Editor for Wandering Educators.