Loving the Land that Loves You
Many summers ago, I moved to a rural town situated in the bottom of a valley of blue gums in the tablelands of New South Wales. The romance of living off the grid and amongst the land I claimed to love superseded the desire to spend my holidays with friends and family, so I packed my bags and left. I toiled the lands under the Australian sun picking peaches with yellow juices that covered my face and arms and seeped into the pores of my skin. The intensity of manual labour was humbling and strengthening. My calloused hands and blistered feet were a constant reminder of the daily reality for Australian farmers.
My time was filled with meaning that surpassed the instant yet fleeting gratification of social media and the obsession with fast food and shopping centre sales. We killed and ate the bush pigs that were tearing up our crops; we bathed in rivers and grew herbs by the water-tank. We discovered the long-lost art of getting to know your neighbour, of Julie’s thriving aloe vera garden perfect for sunburn, Jake’s free-for-all marijuana farm, the childless couple in the old post office that kept yellow rubber duckies in the bathtub and owned a jukebox of one-hit wonders. I was immersed in a community that operated according to the weather and its relentless tears and heated punches; I was living with a people that spoke of old myths and legends as if the heroes were still sitting beside them. There was no internet, no phone reception – only an abundance of brown snakes and kangaroos and domesticated dingoes.
I spent the following years with my head under waterfalls and my bare feet in the wet mud that surrounded them. I hitchhiked up the east coast and met strangers who taught me more than my university degree in a simple conversation. I moved to the sea and I fell in love with my country in a way that I didn’t quite realise until I left it.
In mid-2015, it was reported that the 25,000 fruit trees I had once laboriously picked and pruned and thinned were being uprooted due to a proposal to include a cyanide processing plant at a nearby town’s gold mine facility. Fears of toxic mine runoff were too high, and the orchard announced the 70th season of fruit as its final.
My heart broke.
It broke because I felt like the fond memories I was storing in that little town were being mulched alongside the peach trees.
It broke because I knew how much the farm’s existence meant to the community of 300.
It broke because after all these years, I realised that caring about the environment meant more than just putting my rubbish in the bin and sticking up my nose every time someone discarded fast food from a car window.
I came across an article a week later that announced 80% of the Queensland state was suffering drought. Photos were released on social media that showed the people who were feeding my country waking every morning to dusty plains and skeletal cattle. I thought of my old valley. I thought of Julie and Jake and the childless couple.
Acting out of social expectation rather than environmental appreciation seemed justifiable for the majority of my life. I was consuming more than I was producing and I didn’t care about the scarcity of water or the people that were suffering because of it. The fact that I was doing a little more than my neighbour was enough. I composted my scraps for goodness sake!
It wasn’t until I sweated in the rain, turned brown with dust and saw the fog lift like a crinkled blanket from the valley’s depths that I began to understand the weight of the environmental issues that existed beyond my television screen. It wasn’t until I met the families and the outcasts and the nomads that I realised the emotional and financial weight of the damages of carbon emissions and mining.
The question is, how can we best implement self-sustainability in our communities when the government has become economically dependent on mining and export industries? Most of the time we don’t really have a choice – the government owns the soil below and the immediate financial gains are too lucrative to reject. And I need a car for work. And my handbag isn’t big enough to carry a mug to a café. And I don’t have enough time to grow a vegetable garden – let alone the space…
I think this defeatist attitude shrouds the deep-seeded knowledge that these issues can be overcome, at least while we are in possession of the land we live on. We must invest in food storage to reduce waste, plant a garden or install alternative energy or a water tank. Dumpster-dive if you’re brave. Use biodegradable toilet paper and roll on deodorant. Most importantly, dig your hands into the soil beneath you and get connected to the roots of your homeland.
I think we need to start intentionally changing the way that we appreciate the land we live on. It’s more than just Instagramming a photo and captioning it with “I love nature”. Love is an action, and loving our earth means giving back what it gives you.
Photos by Ruby Claire