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In summer the sun beats relentlessly on the stubble left once crop and hay have been harvested. Look closely and you can see the straight rows in which the crops were planted.
It is unlikely that you K. Holmes and H. Goodall eds. HOLMES will see any other plants growing within the neat lines: these will have been killed with the herbicides big tractors spray on any intruder. The Mallee has not always looked like this—European interlop- ers encountered a very different landscape.
Remnants of it can still be found in national parks, characterised by the unique Eucalyptus dumosa, or mallee as the original owners called it. There are eleven varieties of mallee tree, which can reach five to eight metres in height and have up to six stems growing from lignotubers under or just above the ground. F Indigenous people used these lignotubers as a water source in an oth- O erwise predominantly dry landscape. The mallee is a tree adapted to this particular environment.
Forests of mallee covered approximately O one-fifth of the area we now know as Victoria. The understory of these swathes of mallee embrace a huge biodiversity of plants: acacias, hak- PR eas, grevilleas, cabbage bush, tea tree, broombush, lignum, spear grass, porcupine grass and wallaby grass, to name a handful. Today, ecologists recognise a series of unique ecosystems that comprise some of the most diverse range of flora and fauna in Australia, much of it now threatened.
I travelled this road into Mallee country many times to record life ED history interviews with residents for an environmental history project on the Mallee lands of southern Australia.
I was seeking interviews that would place the life experience of my participants within the broader nar- IS rative of environmental change that the Mallee has experienced. We had plenty of archival material that conveyed the process of transformation the Mallee has undergone since European settlement, but sought to add EV another layer of interpretation and analysis and to gain a sense of how people articulate the interconnections between themselves and the lands they live within.
The interviews that this chapter draws upon were con- R ducted with residents who had all been born in the Mallee or married into it. They were all, or had been, farmers, and most were from families, or married into families, who could trace their arrival in the Mallee back to the early waves of European settlement. Like most life history inter- views, topics covered include childhood, education and adult lives.
They are rich stories about family and identity, growing up and growing older, raising children, and coping with the challenges of living and farming in the Mallee.
There is much about environmental change within them, but it is inextricably entwined with the broader narratives of their lives.
Understanding the ways environment and people have shaped each other in the Mallee requires us to keep in view the ways the familial, social, cul- tural and emotional also shape the more-than-human world Fig. Photograph courtesy of Deb IS Anderson EV Oral history is full of intimate, intricate narratives; the life histories shared in this project balance the broad sweep of environmental change with the detail of the daily. Oral history offers the opportunity to locate and interrogate individual lives within their webs of interconnected worlds.
And it enables us to weave into those webs the sensory and emotional lives of the people who filled them. It can add texture and depth, enriching our histories and enabling us to better understand the dynamic relationship between peo- ple and the environments they have transformed. In this chapter I use oral history interviews to explore the ways in which the gendered identi- ties of our participants are shaped by their understanding of the land. This relationship with the land also shapes a strong collectively felt sense of Mallee identity.
Past narratives of settler-Australian land use shape the ways people respond to present challenges, and participants regularly K. This chapter also explores the ways individual lives can disrupt and challenge the meta-narratives of colonial and national progress, of pioneering and the frontier, at the same time as those meta-narratives shape the ways in which individuals seek to frame their life story and anticipate their future.
The narrative celebrating that transformation was PR being crafted even as the changes were being enacted. In , the engi- neer and surveyor A. Poor EV seasons, the collapsed price of wheat during the s Depression and inadequate government support led many settlers to abandon their blocks and the Mallee. However, for those who remained in the Mallee and still had the means to sow a crop, the breaking of the drought in produced a bumper harvest.
The emerging narrative told of Mallee farmers being pushed to F the limits of endurance, but repaid tenfold if they had the stamina to O withstand the trials of Mallee life.
Each farmer I have interviewed has echoed it in some form or other. It ED has become the foundation story of the Mallee—its genesis myth.
It is a story that links the Mallee to the founding national myth of the pioneer legend but posits a Mallee exceptionalism. And, like many foundation IS stories, it can both enable and impede. In recent years historians have drawn specific attention to the envi- ronmental implications of European colonisation of the Mallee.
These EV emerge readily in any telling of the history of Mallee farming: clearing of Eucalyptus dumosa deprived the fine sand of its clinging roots; over- cropping and over-cultivation led to desertification; drought intensified R the process; dust storms were legendary; and topsoil from the Mallee began to appear as red dust in Melbourne homes and on the snow fields of New Zealand. The ancient history of the landscape became visible as shallow-rooted crops replaced deep-rooted trees, causing the water table to rise and drawing the underlying salt to the surface.
Mice and locust plagues added to the misery of dust storms. Settler responses to these calamities form part of the environmen- tal story. Tales of survival are linked to the need to constantly adapt to changing circumstances. Droughts have often been times of learning. The drought of — saw the consolidation of small unprofitable blocks into larger holdings, and the establishment of the Soil Conservation Authority.
Following the catastrophic drought of , many farmers K. In their readiness to embrace developments in science and technology, the Mallee has once again been transformed.
In the system of no-till farming, fallowing and sheep are no longer used to address the problem of weeds. GPS-guided computers determine the O location of the furrows and the seeds. Weeds are controlled through extensive spraying of herbicides.
No-till farming has dramatically reduced O the prevalence and severity of dust storms. The adoption of these new farming methods has compounded the move to industrial-scale farming.
If you want bigger machinery, you need a bigger income. Understanding the val- ues and the thinking that drives their decisions enables us to identify EV the meanings that they bring to their work and lives as farmers. We can learn about their motivations for change, and the ways they situate themselves in the narratives about the past and the future. One of the R enduring tropes that finds its way into the narratives of Mallee farmers is that of the frontier. The contemporary frontier trope employed most readily by our participants suggests other meanings: it is one of pushing boundaries, utilising cutting-edge agricul- tural research to improve yields and manage land.
All of the men discussed here grew up in the Mallee and inherited a farm, or part thereof, that they continued to work, even if they had some time away. Three of the four women were born in the Mallee or close by, and married into Mallee families and ED the farms that came with them. Only very recently have women in the Mallee inherited farms, and it is still rare.
He sold the block in and bought another, which Bob still owns and his son now farms. The orig- O inal tree planted in his memory died, so Bob and his family planted a native Kurrajong tree and made a plaque to record the family tragedy. American anthropologist Stephen Foster observes: ED The land brackets history, is its theatre, its ground.
Land situates the tran- sit of the person within history; … Pioneering ancestors came to the land and there gave birth to their descendants. Present-day descendants expect IS eventually to be laid to rest in the land, while hoping for history to con- tinue to flow on through the land once their own lives are over. Thus blood and family lines are inextricably interwoven with the history of land EV and place. For these interviewees, Indigenous R history rarely features in their stories.
No participants mention Indigenous blood spilt on the genealogical landscape they map. There is mention of attending school with local Aboriginal children, and of having them as playmates, but there are no Aboriginal adults in the stories gathered from non-Indigenous participants. Life was simple, you made your own fun, rode a horse or a bike to school, attended church on Sundays and social- ised with family and friends. Children were F also crucial as farm hands: sewing wheat bags, clearing sticks and stumps O from wheat fields, rounding up sheep.
This O diversity was both an essential aspect of the cycle of fallowing, where sheep were moved onto the recently cropped paddocks and helped keep PR weeds in check, as well as providing some income protection as sources of revenue to help hedge against fluctuations in market prices. Many farmers have divested themselves of sheep in the move to broad-acre farming but recent dry years have seen some farmers reinvesting in stock as a strategy to diversify their exposure to climate variations.
ED Many interviewees recalled intense immersion in the landscapes of their childhoods. Like most childhood memories, they are tinged with nostalgia, but the sense of this landscape as a potentially malevolent IS force, and life here as precarious, lurks.
Detailed knowledge of their landscape is interwoven with childhood EV experiences connecting them to some of the more memorable—and catastrophic—events in Victorian and South Australian environmental history.
Dawn Petschel born grew up just south of the Mallee R and spent hours roaming the scrub around her home.
She knew its flora and fauna intimately. Her father worked as a labourer and after leaving school at 15 her first job was alongside him, cutting eucalyptus bush from which eucalyptus oil would be extracted. They camped beside the bush to be closer to work and were camping here when the 14 January bushfires burnt through the area.
She saved her camera, a rare item of lux- ury in an otherwise subsistence existence. They knew every type of bird, every nest, and the colour and size of every egg. Helen Ballentine born was O one such child.
She was deeply involved in farm life as a child and started driving the tractor at the age of eight, far preferring to help her father on O the farm with ploughing and caring for the sheep than assist her mother in the house. Nature study was a central part of the school curriculum PR and Helen loved the learning that happened outside.
Her favourite place on the farm was the mallee scrub and the natural springs she found there where the water seeped up through the sand. John Cass, always ED on the lookout for ways to earn pocket money, trapped rabbits and sold them and caught foxes and sold their skins.
He would also pluck the wool off dead sheep and sell it. From an early age they were involved in shaping their family farm, learning the contours of its rises, its changes in soil. They learnt too the nature of its EV seasons—the cycles of drought and abundance. Working alongside their parents, they heard the stories of family hardship, of struggle and sur- vival, and the strategies that helped them endure.
Nicholas Gill writes of R the importance of these experiences in shaping the historical memory of pastoralists in Central Australia: They carve out a place for themselves through suffering, and in turn the experience is carried by them and their heirs … Indeed, among pastoral- ists the shared embodiment of these experiences is an important part of collective identity and memory, marking them off from others whom they assume to have no understanding.
Stories of pioneering ancestors merge into narratives of farming conditions which required a frontier mentality of constant adaptation and innovation.
John Cass wanted to be a farmer and, despite encouragement from his PR parents and teachers to stay at school, like Bob Schilling, he left as soon as he could, aged Both knew they wanted to be Mallee farmers.
A key theme of the Mallee foundation story is that of adaptability. Mallee farmers have to adapt to the extremes of a highly variable climate. The testing points are the drought years. Farmers recite these like a liturgy: —, , , , They R are seared into cultural and individual memories, and handed down from one generation to the next. As Deb Anderson has shown, drought, and endurance, are seen as defining features of Mallee climate and farming; surviving drought is central to the identity of Mallee farmers.
And we did quite well that year. There were two paddocks we grazed off to sheep. We sewed off 30 points [ I was on my own then.
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