If we consider a global issue in local terms, what insights might we gain? The Waterhole Project investigates the global problem of anthropogenic climate change from the perspective of place. > More


May 20th, 2010 by George Main

In July 2008 economist Ross Garnaut addressed the National Press Club in Canberra. Garnaut had finalised his draft review into the economic effects of climate change in Australia, a major and influential study. Towards the end of his address Garnaut reflected on the implications of this impending ecological crisis on Australian culture. He described the Murray-Darling Basin (in which lies Combaning, Lake Cowal and the entire Lachlan River valley) as ‘the heartland of old Australia.’ This productive region ‘produced Australia’s defining  identity’ Garnaut asserted, 

the Australian legend around the nomad shearer and drover, the bush ballad and the doctrine of mateship. It generated the subsequent Australian military legend, with the  formation of the Australian Light Horse for the Boer War and its transformation into the First Light Horse in World War 1. It produced the country’s first and most durable national poets, Paterson and Lawson; folk heroes, for good or ill, Ned Kelly; and sporting legends Don Bradman, Hayden Bunton and Margaret Court, just to name the first of a golden hoard. It was decisive in the movement towards Federation, contributed a high  proportion of political leaders in the earlier mid twentieth century, prime ministers Watson, Chifley, Menzies, Ford and McEwen, and was and is the natural home of the national capital. Mr Percival, the pelican in the Coorong, was the film favourite of my generation’s children.  

Without containment of global greenhouse gas pollution, warned Garnaut, the wetter and more fertile parts of Australia would ‘change beyond recognition’ and ‘The Murray-Darling Basin would be mourned.’  

Some of the time honoured stories generated within Garnaut’s ‘heartland of old Australia’ offer insights into the cultural predispositions that shape our responses to the crisis of climate change. AB Paterson, one of the ‘durable national poets’ mentioned by Garnaut, was a wheat farmer east of Bland Creek for a year or two before the outbreak of World War One. Paterson’s farm was near the village of Bimbi, beside the bush cloaked Weddin Mountains. 

People of the Bland claimed Paterson as their own. This article about Thomas McNamara appeared in The Canberra Times on 27 December 1938:   


In her local history Beyond the Early Maps, Veronica McNamara describes her family’s long association with the Bland Creek area. Her relative Thomas McNamara, she explains, was called ‘Clancy’ to distinguish him from his uncle Thomas. According to Veronica, Clancy, a remarkable horseman, became the central character of ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, one of Paterson’s best known poems. 

The emotional power of ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ is generated by Paterson imagining a wide division between urban and rural. The poet casts the ‘dusty, dirty city’ of Sydney in fierce opposition to ‘the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended’. Paterson writes from a ‘dingy little office, where a stingy ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall’. Inland, ‘down the Lachlan’, lives Clancy, and Paterson imagines his droving friend enjoying ‘pleasures that the townsfolk never know’. For ‘the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him / In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars’ (Banjo Paterson, The Man from Snowy River and other verses, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1987, pp. 9-10). 

Lachlan River, Jemalong, April 2010

The story told by Paterson in this poem constructs a wide gulf between ‘city’ and ‘country’, and invites the reader to yearn across it. In the country resides the seductive wild. In Sydney, only ’hurrying people’ with ‘pallid faces’ and ‘stunted forms’. To claim such opposition, Paterson had to ignore the wild in the city; the great flocks of fruit bats, for example, at dusk departing their daytime roosts in moist North Shore gullies and flying south and east towards gardens and bushland to feast on flowers and fruits. 

‘Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined that route for all of us’, writes Rebecca Solnit (Storming the Gates of Paradise, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2007, p. 5). As the fruit bats of Sydney remind us, the wild does indeed reside in Australia’s largest city. And as primary producers in the Murray-Darling Basin will often remark, we all depend on the food and natural fibres grown across ‘the sunlit plains extended.’ Our bodies, in an ecological sense, dwell there. 

Paterson’s ‘Song of the Wheat’ is another well known poem depicting the Bland Creek area, downstream from Combaning. Paterson wrote this poem in about 1914, during his time as a wheat farmer near Bimbi, a small town east of the Bland Creek. In the five years to 1911 the area sown to wheat in the Bimbi district more than trebled (‘The Wheat Crop’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Sept. 1911). As Paterson wrote ‘Song of the Wheat’, perhaps sitting on the verandah of his homestead, occasionally raising his head to gaze across wheat paddocks towards the Bland, railway construction workers were busily laying a new track north from Stockinbingal to Forbes. Railways fueled agricultural development by providing faster and cheaper transport of produce to Sydney markets and export ports. Driven by the imperatives of urban commerce, the industrial force of railway technology profoundly reshaped the inland:

Yarran and Myall and Box and Pine –
   ‘Twas axe and fire for all;
They scarce could tarry to blaze the line
   Or wait for the trees to fall,
Ere the team was yoked, and the gates flung wide,
   And the dust of the horses’ feet
Rose up like a pillar of smoke to guide
   The wonderful march of Wheat. 

Paterson’s work suggests how the imagination of a vast divide between city and country serves powerful technological and commercial interests. When the intimate, ecological ties of all people to the lands that nourish them are obscured and denied, those lands lie vulnerable. Providing a sense of connection and dependence instead enables an awareness and acceptance of responsibility. As warmer, dryer and more unstable climate patterns begin to undermine Australian food and natural fibre production systems, we need stories that trace the many strands that bind rural and urban domains together. We need stories that promote alliances and action.


April 6th, 2010 by George Main

The site of old Combaning homestead is littered with evidence of past events, lives and choices. Amid the soil, grasses and Paterson’s curse lie ceramic shards, some with patterns of flowers and birds, of life and fecundity:

post photo 2

post photo 3

A short walk away, on the other side of the creek, fruit trees planted many decades ago continue to flower and fruit. In April last year I took these photos of a quince tree  beside Combaning Creek, its ancient trunk brittle and twisted, its plump fruits glowing yellow and green before the faded paddocks, singing of the bounty this fertile place can still yield:

quince 1 for blog

quince trunk for blog

The Temora Shire, which includes Combaning, has long found an identity in its productive wheat and sheep paddocks. According to a local tourism website, the shire is located in ‘the heart of the NSW agricultural belt’ and ‘has proven a bountiful region for agriculture over many generations.’  Neighbouring Temora, the Bland Shire likewise draws identity from its productive terrain, as the imagery on this sign tells:

One aim of The Waterhole Project is to provide a sense of the productive history of the Combaning area, to suggest how its paddocks have nourished many thousands of people in Australia and elsewhere, over generations, and warmed their bodies with wool.

We’re all embedded in Combaning, and in many other rural places near and far, in real, ecological ways. Yet we’re rarely drawn into relation with these places that give us life. Modern systems of food and fibre production, marketing and distribution block opportunities to know and care about the living systems in which our bodies dwell. We can’t easily know how our choices affect the wellbeing of people and other species living at Combaning, of the local waterways and the paddocks of red brown earth through which they weave. Opportunites to reciprocate, to accept the responsibilities that arise from the intimate, life giving ties that bind us to these and other rural terrains, are few.

William Cronon, in the opening pages to his epic study Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (WW Norton & Co., New York, 1991), notes that ‘the commodities that feed, clothe, and shelter us are among our most basic connections to the natural world. If we wish to understand’, he continues, ‘the ecological consequences of our own lives–if we wish to take political and moral responsibility for those consequences–we must reconstruct the linkages between the commodities of our economy and the resources of our ecosystem.’ A few pages later he quotes the renowned ecologist Aldo Leopold: ‘We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.’

Hopefully, the pictures and understandings of Combaning offered by The Waterhole Project may help to enable ethical relations between people and the productive rural places to which we are all bound. For we may perceive Combaning as a ‘shadow place’, a term given by philosopher Val Plumwood to those scattered places ‘that provide our material and ecological support’ and ‘which, in a global market, are likely to elude our knowledge and responsibility’ (see ‘Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling’). At this time of global crisis, as changing climate patterns begin to undermine the productive capacity of our rural places, such institutionalised ignorance and irresponsibility is dangerous indeed.

* * *

In July last year I met retired farmers Jack and Margaret at their home in Temora. Jack’s father bought a farm alongside Narraburra Creek in 1923, downstream from Combaning (Combaning Creek flows into Narraburra Creek), about fifteen kilometres away from the Combaning waterhole as the crow flies northwards. Jack eventually took over the management of the farm, where the dark curving shapes of the Narraburra Hills rise gently above the wheat paddocks. Over cups of instant coffee prepared by Margaret we talked about their lives as farmers and about the history of the Narraburra and Combaning areas. Margaret had grown up at Combaning. She’d attended the one room school opposite the timber slab homestead on Combaning Creek. The homestead was still standing then, and occupied.

In the hall Jack showed me two framed photos of his beloved draft horse team at work. He was the last farmer in the Narraburra district to exchange his horses for a tractor. I asked Jack why he’d kept using his horses for so long. ‘Because I was a lover of horses!’ he replied with a laugh. Jack recited the names of all fourteen horses in his last team: Tidy, Noble, Bonny, Tiger, Pearl, Nelson, Bloss, Tobey, Lady, Violet, Trimer, Punch, Gip, Rose.

Later, I mentioned that I’d read in a local history book about an array of stone grooves in sandstone on the Narraburra Hills, where an early settler searching for strayed horses encountered an estimated five hundred Wiradjuri camped, the men sharpening spears in the grooves (Rob Webster, The First Fifty Years of Temora, Temora, 1950, p. 11). Jack knew of the grooves, and said he’d unearthed many stone tools while ploughing. Outside in the winter sun, I took this photo of Margaret with a framed photo of Jack and his horses ploughing a paddock in March 1948, the Narraburra Hills rising behind:

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Jack and Margaret whether they’d ever known years as hot and droughty as those of the last decade. ‘We’ve never experienced a dry time like we’re experiencing now’, Jack replied emphatically. Jack and Margaret agreed that these new and difficult conditions were not caused by the accumulative effects of humans burning fossil fuels. ‘Since time ever was, there’s been these changes’, Margaret said.

* * *

Skepticism about the science of anthropogenic climate change is widespread in rural Australia. People often express a view that natural cycles alone have delivered the unusually dry and warm conditions of recent years. Such beliefs no doubt arise, in part, from the more conservative mindsets commonly encountered in the bush. There is mistrust of new understandings that so swiftly gain popular attention.

But there are other influences at work. Representative organisations responsible for defending the interests of rural people and places appear to be exploiting and promoting mistrust in established scientific institutions and processes. For example, the NSW Farmers Association recently held a ‘Climate Science Information Forum’ in Canberra. Hundreds of farmers arrived to hear a man with no training in climate science dismiss the science of anthropogenic climate change with arguments much discredited by climate scientists. An apparent reluctance by NSW Farmers and senior politicians representing rural electorates to attend to the best science available, to base policies and strategies on scientific understandings emanating from reputable institutions, blocks possibilities to prepare our rural places for the hard times ahead.

One early spring night in 2001 a heavy frost descended across the Temora region. Wheat crops flower in early spring, and are especially vulnerable to frost. Many crops failed after the big frost of October 2001. I took the photo below in the same paddock as the Combaning Creek waterhole, early the following year. The half grown, unharvested heads of the wheat crop remained, a drooping record of that unseasonably cold, still night:

As the October 2001 frost and the local effects of the recent long drought (see this earlier post) attest, our rural terrains lie vulnerable to extreme weather. The resilience and wellbeing of land depends on biological diversity and the webs of ecological relations characteristic of diverse biological communities. When seasons are good, paddocks sown to single crop species, or a handful of pasture varieties, and subject to a heavy application of industrial chemicals and machinery, may produce abundantly. But when the rains don’t come, and temperatures rise or plunge, production fails.

In the Lake Cowal area, downstream from Combaning and Morangarell, some farmers are turning towards native grasses in their quest to remain productive through these hot, dry times. Since 2005 the Lake Cowal Foundation has invited local farmers to participate in a series of pasture cropping trials. Pasture cropping involves the autumn sowing of cereal crops directly into native grass pasture. Through winter, crops emerge from beneath a protective cover of sturdy grasses and other indigenous species. Grazing by livestock is managed to promote the seeding and spread of native grasses in summer and autumn.  Earthworms and other organisms vital to soil and plant health return beneath the grassy surface. Grain yields are usually lower, but so are input costs and risks, and production from grazing rises.

The Lake Cowal Foundation is funded primarily by Barrick Gold, a mining company based in Canada that operates the nearby Cowal gold mine. The investment made by Barrick in the Foundation has enabled some local farmers to adjust their management strategies and achieve a closer integration of farm production systems with local ecological systems, and thereby make their paddocks more resilient.

Instead of lobbying for resources to enable the sorts of adjustments made in the Lake Cowal area, NSW Farmers and senior rural politicians foster skepticism and deny the need for change. At this time of crisis, we need leaders who truly care about rural places and people. We need leaders with the sagacity and humility to attend to the reputable science. Tonight, as I’m writing these words, the voice of Neil Murray rises in my mind, singing a question: ‘Australia, where are your caretakers gone?’ (‘Native Born’, Dust, 1996).