The black soil in my blood

A Writer’s birthright.

I WAS born in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales and I spent the first years of my life living on my parents’ farm between the crossroads village of Delungra and the town of Bingara.

The countryside consisted of rolling uplands, the last vestiges of the black soil country before they give way to Queensland’s Darling Downs.

Some of my earliest memories are of the soil, often baked hard into cracked clay beds, or sluiced with water into acres of mud, but always black. Black against the yellow straw grass that covered the hills.

‘Paxton’, the property where I spent my childhood, was salvaged by my parents from a derelict state. Despite a few years of success, death and divorce saw my rural childhood disappear like spinifex on the wind.

Nights of blazing stars. Days of grey skies over blue hills. Hailstorms and wind that blew the corrugated sheds around like leaves… all were replaced by the disturbing lights of cars in urban streets crossing my bedroom wall in town, of houses that seemed insanely close together, and people living right up against one another.

My family bridged a great divide. The country half were tall, Germanic, Presbyterian stock in great numbers, who, by the time I was born, lived with a fading sense of entitlement based on achievements past.

The other half were a small band of establishment city dwellers with a dose of very English mores.

An attempt was made to combine these energies in my parents’ marriage, but it failed miserably.

I left the country, and in many ways I have been running from it my whole life.

But when I left London to take up a job offer in Suffolk, barely an hour from the city, it was to work for a rural media company.

In my application, I evoked the country of my childhood to get the job. I didn’t need to pretend, I’d lived in and around a mixed crop and stock farm, and I knew a bit about how they operated.

Despite feeling like a complete sellout, I used my trump card – being of strong country bloodlines – and I could see the eyes of one of my interviewers misting over. There is a great camaraderie, and a willingness to help-out their own, amongst families who have worked the land.

I was a farm boy who had video production and communication skills, and I got the job.

Forget that I thought agriculture in general had lost its way, that I was vegetarian, and an animal liberationist who had little interest in farm machinery. I needed a good income, and an opportunity. Farming Press offered me that, and I took it, wondering when my secrets would be discovered.

BURGE'S BURGH The windmill tower on the hillside of the hamlet of Burgh, Suffolk (photo: Barry Hughes
BURGE’S BURGH The windmill tower on the hillside of the hamlet of Burgh, Suffolk (Photo: Barry Hughes).

So I packed-up my room in a shared flat in London’s leafy Lewisham Park, and rented another in a tiny row of cottages in the charming little hamlet of Burgh, up a hill past a windmill from the even more charming village of Grundisburgh, just north of Ipswich, Suffolk’s historic county town.

With barely three days to prepare myself, I had to pack for a flight to Detroit, Michigan, to document the traditional skills of farming people across three states.

In the rush I didn’t get much of a chance to meet my new colleagues or my housemate, or settle into the Farming Press offices on the edge of Ipswich, a typical English company with some friendly faces, wanting to know this Australian who was going to work in the video department downstairs.

My first week’s pay was more than I would have earned in a month of cinema shifts. The Suffolk countryside was blossoming into a gorgeous spring. I got a touch of hay fever. I became lost on country lanes trying to find my way home. I was cornered by inquisitive cows. I bought my first ever car and was able to traverse the country without the crippling cost of train travel.

England had opened itself to me a little… and then I had to leave her in a rush of camera equipment and travelling instructions. America’s rural heartland was waiting.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “The black soil in my blood”

  1. I look forward to seeing how the country impacts your writing and ideas about living. I’ve recently left behind small-town pastoral ministry, as well as a failed homesteading attempt with my wife and partner of 20 years plus. I’ve moved into a city apartment alone where I’m trying to find my way into a writing career. I’m blogging about writing and I liked yours, so I will be back.

    1. Thanks indytony – one of my blog categories is “rural childhood”, and selecting that will lead you to other posts I have written about my country upbringing. And yes, there is more to come … Farming Press was only my first foray into rural media. Glad to meet another city-country denizen!

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