Theatrical dags

STAR PERFORMERS Tom Roberts’ ‘Shearing the Rams’ c.1890 from the National Gallery of Victoria.

A young Playwright’s first theatre.

SOME of my earliest memories of growing up at ‘Paxton’ (the property my parents owned near Delungra in New South Wales), are of the shearing shed, and not just during shearing season.

Back then, ‘Paxton’ was not a particularly iconic or beautiful homestead, but my parents had made it habitable after years of standing derelict, and turned it into a viable farm.

The home itself was once two buildings – the main house faced the east, and, built onto tree stumps at the west stood what was probably the old kitchen, once separated. This was common practice from times when the risk of the house burning to the ground was great if the kitchen went up in flames.

“There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed.”

A falling-down chook run and an overgrown tennis court stood at each end of the home yard, and up the gravel road was the shearing shed – a cluster of corrugated iron buildings with sheep yards on one side and a rather large door.

This shed was a source of delight and surprise for me and my brother, probably starting when we found our Christmas presents behind that door, long before Santa Claus had a chance to deliver them that year. It was far enough from the house that our frequent secret trips to ride our new bikes were not discovered for some time!

Most of the year, the shearing shed was empty. Not being completely weatherproof, the elements had worked away at the wooden rails of the yards, which were over a child’s head height and enclosed tall weeds more than they did sheep.

But once a year, the building would fill with life, when the Shearers arrived. They introduced new words into my world, the most evocative being ‘Smoko‘, meaning a break, a few minutes to swill down a hot tea and smoke a cigarette, usually sometime in the mid morning. The other was a ‘Spell’ – a short sleep in the shade of a tree after lunch.

My brother and I carried an esky and thermos up to the shearing shed every day the Shearers were in residence. I have no idea where they lived – they probably camped in the shelter of the shed itself.

Paxton.
MAKING AN ENTRANCE Inside the shearing shed at “Paxton”, Delungra.

These were worn men, angular with years of bending into their task, hands burnished from holding their shears, and senses dulled from maintaining the loud engine which drove the complicated overhead shearing system – dangerous rubber belts and fast wheels which whizzed the clippers into action.

We were too young to do more than sweep up sheep crap and help with cleaning the shorn fleece, in the raucous masculine atmosphere which departed as quickly as it had arrived, leaving the shed empty and full of potential.

There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed for me, even now I cannot pass one by without getting a look inside. They are scattered across the Tablelands, often surprising you around a rural corner, usually well cared-for if the farm is still functioning. For me, however, the more dilapidated they are the better.

In the drafty darkness of an empty shed, the smell of decomposing sheep crap brings my childhood stampeding back to me. The odour is always tempered by lanolin, the oil from the fleece which builds up on all timbers where sheep have been herded and shorn, preserving wood better than any varnish ever could. The skeletal frame of a shearing shed endures for decades under this resin, whereas the outer shell rots away until it’s like driftwood, lending the place a graveyard quality.

But the most romantic element of a shearing shed is the journey of the wool. Corralled in the waiting yards, sheep are dragged through a timber gate onto the shearing floor, where they are clipped from head to toe, then shoved down a chute to the lower ground level outside to recover from the shock. Those chutes, slippery and steep, were our first fun park.

Each precious fleece, akin to a great fluffy jacket, is thrown over a large wooden table, allowing burrs and sheep crap (called ‘Dags‘) to be picked out, then thrown into the top of an enormous timber cupboard with great doors. There it waits until being pressed into bales and labelled by spraying across a tin stencil to create a mark identifying the wool’s source.

ROGUES & VAGABONDS Australian Shearers operating a wool press. From the Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Those great doors held a kind of theatrical power, perfect for making dramatic entrances. In fact, for me, the perfect theatre would be a converted shearing shed, with the same hand-made quality as the original Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays first saw the light of day.

Thousands of pin-sized holes in the corrugated iron roofing sheets make a sky of stars overhead, especially on a brilliant sunny day. An audience could be herded onto the shearing floor, waiting for the actors to emerge from behind those great doors.

Perhaps it was the spirit of Shearer’s industriousness and camaraderie that inspired my love of shearing sheds? And probably their faces, full of weathered character, adept at entertaining youngsters.

In shearing sheds, as with theatres, roles are defined, achievements praised, young people trained-up. Vocabulary is important, for the sake of tradition as much as safety. Star performers are made every year. Sometimes they fall, overtaken by younger talent.

The existence of Shearers is tenuous at best, much like the lives of those who ‘tread the boards’. Both career choices rely on good economies and fair bosses, and entire careers can be judged on one day’s performance. There’s plenty of touring, you must go where the work is, and the pay is not great.

The end result of both these labours is something that enhances life without taking it. Such roles should be treasured forever, but they languish in danger of their existence.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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