Dancing to drought’s ragged tune

By Mary-Lou Considine March 17th, 2015

For most of us, the word drought conjures images of a parched landscape, stunted crops, dry waterways and dead livestock. But what about rain dancing?

Book review: ‘Endurance: Australian Stories of Drought’

For most of us, the word drought conjures images of a parched landscape, stunted crops, dry waterways and dead livestock. But what about rain dancing?

Man and woman dancing hand in hand in a dry paddock

Mr & Mrs Smith celebrating the end of the drought at Mount Fraser Homestead’ (taken for the Sun newspaper around 1931).
From Museum Victoria’s Biggest Family Album in Australia. Image: Museum Victoria MM004318

In 2003 — two years into Australia’s millennium drought — 500 women from across Victoria’s Mallee staged a naked rain dance at a secret location near Ouyen. Seven years later, after the drought had broken, a group of Aboriginal elders travelled the length of the Murray, dancing the spirit back into the river and its living systems.

Deb Anderson’s new book Endurance: Australian stories of drought reminds us that drought is not just about a prolonged lack of rain. It’s about despair and hope, and the lived experience of thousands of ordinary Australians dealing with extraordinary circumstances.

Deb wrote Endurance after interviewing 22 people from farm families across the Mallee over the period 2004–2007. Her ‘4-year project to talk about the weather’ revealed three overarching themes of survival, uncertainty and adaptation, punctuated by ‘significant moments of reflection on the meaning of drought’.

The enigma of drought, she notes, has ‘kept landholders guessing at the skies for rain, politicians addressing the nation for votes, planners and policymakers redressing the rules for aid, scientists compressing data for research, priests blessing and people confessing and praying for divine intervention, and a host of public commentators messing with the public imagination in the name of schemes to drought proof the wide brown land’.

The Mallee covers one-fifth of Victoria. Paradoxically, here, at the very edge of Australia’s commercial wheat-cropping zone, 2000 dryland farmers produce half the state’s cereal crops, as well as lamb and wool. Mallee farmers, it is said, can grow wheat on the smell of an oily rag.

But agricultural expansion has come at a price. Since Europeans first set foot in the Mallee in the nineteenth century, around 75% of the land has been cleared for agriculture. As a result, more species have been lost from this region than any other part of Victoria over the past two centuries.

Humans too have suffered from misguided policy decisions. After the First World War, the Australian Government opened up 33,000 hectares of the Mallee for wheat and sheep farming to 11,000 soldier settlers.

A horse-drawn machine ploughing land with a man sitting on one end

One of the technologies that opened up the Mallee for broadacre wheat cropping: the ‘stump jump’ plough, designed to negotiate the deep-rooted stumps remaining after mallee scrub was cleared (photo taken in the 1920s). Image: HV McKay Sunshine Collection, Museum Victoria

These novice farmers clear-felled the ‘useless scrub’ using giant rollers and other machines, then pushed the land to its limits by overcropping and overstocking. After commodity prices fell in the 1920s and ‘30s, followed by massive dust storms, farming families left the Mallee in droves, often by night to avoid the stares of neighbours.

The spectre of recurring drought, notes Deb in the book, wears down even the most resilient communities, and today is no different to the past, as many desperate families cling to the land, still recovering from the millennium drought.

But alongside stories of endurance from the past are those of adaptation with an eye to the future. Hubie Sheldon, one of the locals quoted in Endurance, is a Mallee-born farmer who defied tradition and became an organic farmer.

Hubie’s ‘conversion’ came after years of seeing his land being overcropped. He turned to permaculture and planted 30,000 trees in a woodlot and in windbreaks, as well as 250,000 fodder shrubs to encourage biodiversity. Tellingly, he planted the trees in a formation that spelled out ‘Trees for Life’ from above.

People like Hubie offer a glimmer of hope for the future — one where those living on the land become more attuned to its limitations. ‘Europeans really only developed the Mallee in the last 50 years,’ says Hubie. ‘That’s a very, very brief time. And if that’s gonna change our weather patterns — which it, well, it looks like it is — we need to look at what we’ve done in the past and try and learn.’

Two women in white tops standing on a porch

The continual battle against drought has worn down the resilience of many in the Mallee – community health workers like Lynne Healy (left) and Gwen Cooke (right) have fought for rural health services to deal with high rates of depression, stress, domestic violence and suicide. Image: Mallee Climate Oral History Collection, Museum Victoria, Jon Augier

This inspirational book includes photos from Museum Victoria’s ‘biggest family album in Australia’ — an archive of more than 9000 photos dating from the 1870s to 1950s.

You can order a copy from CSIRO Publishing.

2 comments

  1. That’s my great grandparents doing the rain dance – how lovely to see them on the cover of this wonderful book. Thank you Deb Anderson

    1. That’s fantastic, great to hear from you Julie!

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