Four or five hours drive west of Melbourne, on the margins where wheat country merges into desert, many small towns that once flourished teeter on the edge of survival.
Wheat silos are the dominant human sign of continuity in the landscape. Their transformation into works of art may enhance their longevity. I wonder whether Michelangelo might have flourished in this environment.
This is my contribution to
this month beginning with the letter ‘W’.
I have written a little more about the Wimmera here.
Last month, during our harshest summer month of February, I moved the cattle to a new paddock, and was bemused to see them ignore the grass and head straight to a couple of plum trees to eat their leaves instead.
In the north west of Australia’s state of Victoria, the Wimmera region ranges from highly productive sheep and grain growing farmland to desert. It is on the edge. Horizons seem endless, solitude is close.
Mechanisation of farming over the last century has displaced the large rural workforce that was once essential for agriculture. Then, teams worked on the wheat harvest and bagged the grain in hessian bags capable of being handled by one person. Now a huge truck with a lone driver carts away many tonnes at a time for delivery to the silo. Machines, not people, now dominate. Currently pressed bales of straw and grass are so large and heavy (at around 600 kilograms) that they can no longer be moved by hand, as was formerly the case, but require a powerful tractor with forks.
[This image of traditional wheat harvesting has been reproduced with the kind permission of the State Library of Victoria]
Large bales of wheat straw, baled after the grain has been harvested. Near Beulah.
Grain silos are numerous and the largest constructed form in the area, dwarfing the frequently ornate local pubs, commercial buildings, and austere churches. A few silos have been painted, with others on the way. There is already a designated driving circuit to enjoy this art form. Guido van Helten painted the Brim silos, surely a masterpiece:
Small towns in the Wimmera are generally in sharp decline as people drift to larger towns for shopping, housing, amenities and work. Those small towns slumber amongst closed shops and businesses, with houses increasingly unoccupied and neglected. In a country with some of the world’s highest house prices and rental costs, as well as homelessness, it’s a pity that this housing is going to waste.
The main street in Beulah:
Another stark reminder of the depopulation of many small Wimmera towns is the war memorial listing residents killed in the two World Wars. A town that may struggle to sustain a small store and a hotel amongst its streets of closed shops usually has a memorial listing a shocking number of the district’s young men who died in Europe and Turkey in the 1914-18 World War. Hopetoun, with a population of 555 in 2011, lists 91 or 92. The Rainbow War Memorial (pictured below) lists 41 names under the heading ‘They sleep well’. The town’s population in 2011 was 525.
As a contrast to the rather forlorn sight of numerous empty shops, most small towns have well maintained sporting infrastructure; tennis courts, a swimming pool, a football and cricket oval (which sometimes doubles as a venue for the annual agricultural show), and sometimes, a lawn bowling club.
For wanderers, the region has camping grounds and pubs offering accommodation. Camping fees are moderate compared with the rates at more popular destinations; $10-$20 per night for a powered site is usual in the town’s caravan and camping park, generally located beside a river (Jeparit – the Wimmera River) or lake (Brim, Beulah and Hopetoun).
This year’s good rainfall has replenished the region’s watercourses and lakes, which were suffering from a long drought, and local spirits. A farmer of around 60 years old, chatting in Jeparit’s Hindmarsh Hotel, intimated that this year’s grain crop is the best he’s ever seen. By staying and mingling, perceptions alter. As a result of his recommendation we drove to Brim to see the painted silos, and also included Warracknabeal, Beulah, Hopetoun, Rainbow and Jeparit; a nice driving circuit.
The wedge-tailed eagle is Australia’s largest raptor, typically having a wingspan of 182 – 232 cm (6 feet to 7 feet 7 inches), and has been recorded diving at 80 kph (about 50 mph). In the wild, wedgies live for about 40 years.
In my area wedgies are regular visitors, usually seen majestically soaring in circles high in the sky, perhaps 2000 metres up, using thermals in seemingly effortless flight. At other times they seek prey just a few metres above the ground, sometimes even landing quite close to the house.
Although in the past farmers often had a negative attitude about wedgies, mistakenly believing that they were preying on lambs and calves when in fact they were just consuming dead animals, now they are seen in a positive light. In particular, their role in killing Australia’s feral pests – rabbits, cats and foxes – is now applauded.
To the local indigenous people (the Wurundjeri) the wedge-tailed eagle is Bungil, their creator and spiritual leader. Many country people of European background also see the wedgie in a special light. My friends who left their home just minutes before the 2009 Black Saturday bushfire raced into their valley and destroyed most houses in the area, killed neighbours and cut off the road as an escape route, feel that they were alerted to the danger by the continually circling wedgie over their house.
When we moved into our current home in 2009 after losing our previous house in the same fire, a wedgie also featured. On arising on my first morning in the new home, I was greeted by a wedgie perched on a fence in the paddock about 40 metres from the front door. It was quite relaxed and unconcerned, and became a regular visitor over the next month or so, sometimes gliding a few metres above our car like a welcoming plane as we returned from an outing.
Perhaps today’s wedgie is the same one. Thanks for your welcome, Bunjil.
I first encounterd the Prince in my orchard. As home was bordered on two sides by a forested national park, wildlife was common. I therefore wasn’t surprised to see a wallaby underneath one of my most prized fruit trees, but I was bothered that he was holding a ripe apple in his paw, and taking obviously enjoyable bites from it. The last thing needed in an orchard is a wallaby, so I decided to scare it off, and from a distance of about 15 metres, picked up a fallen apple from another tree, and threw it towards (not at) the wallaby.
The response of the wallaby, with eyes locked onto mine, was to drop his partly eaten apple and reach down to pick up the apple I had thrown as it rolled along the ground towards him. He then lifted the apple to his mouth and took take a large bite, all the time looking defiantly at me. So began a long and mercurial relationship.
I’ll call him the Prince now, although the name came later. The Prince particularly liked fruit, as well as the leaves of the fruit trees. To select his snacks he would grasp a tree branch in one paw, pull it down towards him and grab the fruit or leaves in the other. I don’t mind sharing a little fruit, but the Prince broke the branch on most occasions, so that years of careful pruning were transformed into disfigured and misshapen trees within days.
The Prince was also partial to the crops in the vegetable garden, although the fence was high enough to keep him out. Forgetting to close the gate meant that he would be quick to slip inside to enjoy the harvest. Over time, as his familiarity with the family grew, he would ignore attempts to remove him from the vegetable patch and continue feasting on the best of the seasons crops, particularly enjoying tomatoes and zucchini. Ultimately, I found the only way to persuade the Prince to leave the vegetable garden was by spraying him with a watering hose.
Slowly, a scheme was hatched to humanely deal with the Prince. A friend who is a professional in the environmental and wildlife field offered to be available on request to use a hypodermic knockout on the Prince (importantly, for his safety, a different drug to ones used on other marsupials) as we now had arrangements with a person in a nearby district who wanted to take a wallaby for re-release into the wild.
So, the plan was simple. I would befriend the Prince by feeding him fruit, and over time, once he was tame, I would telephone my environmentalist friend who would travel the 10 kilometres to use the hypodermic gun. I would then drive the sleeping Prince to the recipient for release in his new environment.
A great plan? It didn’t work. Over a year or so, the Prince and I became quite close. If he was down the paddock, I would call him, and he’d respond by hopping up to collect his piece of fruit. But, whenever he was around, my wildlife friend was not available to shoot the hypodermic gun, and when he was available, the Prince was nowhere to be seen.
The Prince became much more relaxed around the house, often sleeping on the verandah, or in a shed. In fact, he became so at home, that one day when Mrs Nomadic and I went for a short walk and failed to close the door to our kitchen/dining room, we returned to find the Prince rifling through the fruit and vegetables in the pantry about 6 metres from the door.
Over time, my relationship with Prince evolved, but not always positively. He liked me to feed him on a more level basis height-wise, so I regularly fed him from my old shed chair, as pictured below. I am feeding him with metal kitchen tongs, as the Prince never acquired good table manners, and always tended to grab or snatch at the offering with his razor sharp claws.
It is well known that urine is a good fertiliser for lemon trees. Like many country people, I apply this knowledge. On one particularly dark night, it was very cloudy, with no star or moon light, and as always, no light from a neighbouring house. During the evening I strolled outside with the purpose, to put it delicately, of applying the lemon tree fertiliser theory into practice.
In the darkness by that tree, I was suddenly in the grip of the Prince, who could not be seen in the darkness. He was only innocently seeking something to eat, but it was an unnerving experience with those sharp claws so close to a very delicate part of my body.
After that experience, and with more than a biblical nod, we decided to name him The Prince of Darkness.
The romantic Prince
The Prince had until this time never shown any interest in his own kind. But one day to our horror, we found him showing a young female wallaby his paradise, his Garden of Eden. We could imagine generations of wallabies – baby princes and princesses – further decimating our fruit trees.
A falling out
One afternoon, it became apparent that home was too small for the two of us. As I strolled onto the lawn at the the front of the house, the Prince jumped towards me at some speed, and lashed at my face with his paws, drawing blood. A few moments later, the Prince bound towards me again at high speed, and I knew that this was a serious confrontation.
Alpha male kangaroos (the Prince’s first cousins) fight with rivals for supremacy and access to females, grasping them with their claws, standing as upright as possible by balancing on their tails, lifting the rival off balance, then attempt to injure or disembowel the rival by kicking, made dangerous by their large sharp toes.
As the Prince reared up, slashing his claws at my face and trying to grasp me, I remembered a move from the couple of lessons I had in Taekwando many years before. The kick I landed in the middle of the Prince’s chest to knock him over defused the situation for a while, although I don’t think that our relationship ever returned to its earlier heights.
A fatal illness?
The prince was clearly very sick. He was lying on the floor of the open garage looking feverish, unable to get up, and I quickly saw that he had an infected big toe. It was very swollen. In spite of our differences, because I have a weakness for wildlife, I decided provide him with a little comfort in his remaining time, with water and apples.
Within two weeks, instead of dying, he was back breaking fruit tree branches, having obviously enjoyed being nursed back to health.
What happened in the end? After a while, the Prince just didn’t turn up any more.