Category Archives: Rural Childhood

A Myall in my shoes

A Writer on Australia’s Frontier Wars.

IT has taken me a lifetime to get back to Myall Creek, a typical watercourse that traverses a remote country road like thousands of others in NSW’s New England district.

Here, between the towns of Delungra and Bingara, a corrugated iron hall by a long-disused pair of tennis courts has been a place of dances, Christmas parties, cricket meets and a century of community gatherings.

As kids, me, my siblings and school friends played on iron swings that were already old by the time we clambered over them, while our parents enjoyed social tennis.

On the sidelines between one of those matches, my mother parked herself next to me on the swing in her tennis whites and told me a story. 

SWING
LIFE SWINGS The tennis courts at Myall Creek Hall (Photo: Michael Burge).

She gestured along the creek that snaked its way close to the shed, across a field dotted with pepper and willow trees, and whispered how, long ago, white settlers had driven Aboriginal people over the edge of the gully to their deaths.

The injustice in her tone got my attention, but also her reticence to tell me publicly. In all the years since, I have wondered if she’d been told about this crime, casually, over a lemon barley water on the other side of the court, when some long-term local updated this city girl on the region’s history.

Mum got essential details wrong at that first telling, but what she told me remains one of the most indelible events in Australia’s Frontier Wars – the Myall Creek Massacre.

Life took my family away from the New England region less than two years later. Over the decades, we drove across Myall Creek many times travelling to family events, never stopping.

“Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.”

But the story of the massacre stayed with me, cropping up in school projects and writing efforts. Eventually, I did some research at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, and read for myself the newspaper accounts of the Myall Creek Massacre trials, replete with the often quoted, eye-popping racist responses from readers incensed at the white perpetrators being bought to justice.

The day I return with some of my family for the annual June Long Weekend Myall Creek Memorial, the paddocks around the hall are full of cars. 

I find my way back to the tennis courts, now covered by grass. The swings are still there. I spy the bridge over the creek, and the same gully my mother gestured to almost forty years ago.

By the time the crowd has moved up to the memorial site itself, it’s as though we cannot help but stand in racial groups. There is a hesitation about mingling. We don’t know anyone else. They don’t know us. We’ve all returned to Kamilaroi country because we remember.

Two Aboriginal men, helped by their kids, light a fire for a smoking ceremony. The sound of boomerangs being clapped together calls Aboriginal dancers into action. Smoke rises, wrapping around us, bringing us together.

SMOKE
WELCOME TO COUNTRY Smoking ceremony at the start of the Myall Creek Memorial (Photo: Michael Burge).

The air is heavy with a scent that wakes us into joining the respectful queue that forms at the head of the track leading into the memorial, and hands reach up to draw the white paint across our foreheads.

Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.

The Myall Creek memorial is a short walk through scrubland typical of the region, with its basalt soils – chocolate-brown and ochre red – and the knee-deep sea of sandy coloured grass, lapping between stands of trees.

It’s also granite country. Small boulders lie everywhere, like markers, and as we walk, school students, some of them Aboriginal, read the plaques set into the stones while we progress.

Each tells part of the story of the killing of 28 unarmed Aboriginal women, children and old men in June, 1838. Most were felled by swords after being chained together, one chapter of the long conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal people.

The track leads us to the massacre site, a massive boulder set on the edge of a high place overlooking the remnant of the old Myall Creek Station.

In the distance, cattle feed and call. This was the land granted to squatter Henry Dangar, whose patch was eventually subdivided to create the nearby farm my parents worked in the late 1960s and 70s.

The familiarity of the farm noises comforts me, but when guest speaker Professor John Maynard speaks of the Aboriginal contribution to the wars Australia fought on foreign soil, his voice carries protest at the way Aboriginal history has been whitewashed. It’s a much-needed jolt of reality.

At the ceremony’s end, the next generation is encouraged never to forget the crime. Watching white and Aboriginal kids led by their elders, I am struck by what it must be like to not know about the Myall Creek Massacre.

Plenty of other massacres happened across Australia during the Frontier Wars – in other places, many more Aboriginal people were killed than at Myall Creek, in a variety of ways, from poisoning to shooting. Myall Creek stands out only because it was the first crime after which the bulk of the European killers were brought to justice.

Did the oral histories run deep amongst the white farmers because our ancestors were hanged for their crimes?

MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).
MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).

When American writer Bill Bryson came in search of the massacre site in the late 1990s, he found nothing.

By 2000, the place had been identified and marked. Occasional vandalism since has not dulled the growing spirit of reconciliation which will never be stymied by faceless racism. Now, a fundraising effort is behind a planned onsite education centre.

During the thoughtful walk back to the car, cautious divisions start falling away. We walk as one group. One people.

On the way to visit our old farm, we pause at a high point along the road where another farmhouse became derelict long ago. Very soon, other cars arrive, bearing various descendants of the other families who farmed down the same lane. They were all at the massacre memorial too.

Although we are all different ages, live across two states and our lives have followed varied pathways, one thing unites this group of relative strangers meeting on a tract of the Kamilaroi nation on this particular day – every one of us has always known about the Myall Creek Massacre.

This strong oral history has been handed down through generations and does not come with judgement, shame, or pity for white killers.

It comes with an unforgettable knowledge of what injustice really means in this country, and the desire to pass that message on.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Daylight cannot be saved

SUN CATCHER Don’t try it at home (Photo: thehairpin.com)
SUN CATCHER Don’t try it at home (Photo: thehairpin.com)

A Writer takes on daylight saving.

FADING our curtains and keeping the cows awake, who does the sun think it is? Naughty sun, back in your box.

Yes, it’s Daylight Saving Time (DST) again, when even well-educated people are prone to believe the sun allows a whole hour of its light to be shifted to the other end of the day in some states, and not others.

Here in Queensland, I can see why many don’t want DST. In this climate, it’s cooler to fit a whole day’s gardening in before heading off to work, if that’s your thing.

Living north of the border, I am reminded of growing up in rural northern NSW, where there has always been a competitive spirit around rising early.

“Good afternoon!” was the pleasantly delivered breakfast barb to anyone who stumbled out of bed at the incredibly late hour of 6.30am, instead of being up before the first rays.

Incurable early riser and builder, Britain’s William Willett, gave DST legs in around 1907, and it had everything to do with window coverings.

“DST suits organised economies, it has nothing to do with the time your body clock tells you to rise.”

As the story goes, whilst on his early morning horse rides, Willett noticed many of his neighbours still had their blinds drawn, a situation he took it on himself to change by writing his self-published book, The Waste of Daylight. The impending First World War saw Willett’s vision embraced by the government as a means of saving coal.

Others will tell you the Romans invented DST, and here is the key to its purpose: DST suits organised economies, it has nothing to do with the time your body clock tells you to rise from your bed.

I suspect there’s more than a little state of origin competition behind the Queensland/NSW divide on the issue. NSW likes the feeling of being ‘ahead’ for six months. Queenslanders consequently dig our heels in, and will not be told what to do about our very own daylight.

Which is forgetting the facts: if you want to rise with the sun, you can do it all year, you’ll just have to keep your early morning activities short in the summer, before the clock tells you to scoot off to work.

And if you like to sleep in, you’re going to have to get some very heavy curtains.

Just don’t blame the sun.

Blame Willett and his builder’s view of the working day, and remember, builders down tools at 3pm, it’s a conspiracy…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Whose eye is on the sparrow?

WHO'S WATCHING WHO Do animals have souls?
WHO’S WATCHING WHO Do animals have souls?

A Writer argues for his dog’s soul.

I LOST my eldest dog at the weekend. Olive was my constant companion for fifteen years.

Without her, our household is a little lost. It’s because we live as a pack, and one of us is missing, buried in the corner of the backyard, a tree where once the old lady made her daily wobbly journeys following the patches of sun across the grass.

Tully, our other dog, has that questioning look. Richard’s home from work early with hay fever that won’t budge. I’m just floating along in denial, glad of any distraction.

On the day Olive died, I was drawn to my bookshelf in search of my old copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972). I was of the generation who loved not only the book, but also the animated film of this tale of the survival of a warren of rabbits in the English countryside.

220px-Movie_poster_watership_down

Long before I came to understand its Holocaust metaphors, I also suspect this book coloured some of my views of animals, and mortality.

An expatriate farm boy, I became a vegetarian at the age of 15. I knew exactly how animal products were manufactured from a very young age, but I wanted to remove myself from a marketplace which still widely rests on the suffering of animals.

Because I could see plainly that animals are, like us, sentient beings. Our dairy cow would come to our call, but she would flinch at barbed wire. The retired sheepdogs were our companions, but I remember the cries as Gertie gave birth to her pups. Feral kittens in the shearing shed were fun to play with, but their confusion as they were killed-off by ticks still haunts me a little.

Naively, I thought my stand against suffering would be seen as courageous, but coming out as a non-meat-eater in my teens was an eye-opener.

In my religious school environment I endured lectures from adults about how uncivilised humans would be unless we’d eaten meat. Any respect for an animal’s welfare was perceived as weak. They were simply a soulless commodity.

But my history classes suggested civilisation as we know it did not come about until humans ceased wandering and began farming grains in one place. Archaeology showed animals were revered and even worshipped, imbued with souls no less capable of transitioning into an afterlife as humans.

Dogs were an integral part of those early communities, drawn to the fireside by offers of scraps, providing protection from invaders in return.

My resolve was sharpened: I quietly underlined that eating animal flesh, and animal suffering, do not have to go hand-in-hand.

Once we start down a pathway to animal suffering, the next step is inevitably the suffering of humans. The Nazis were inspired to herd people into train carriages for transportation to concentration camps by the same practice being used on livestock. That’s what makes Watership Down so believable, and not merely a story for children about rabbits.

LIVE TRANSPORT Interior of a boxcar used to transport people in World War Two (Photo: US Holocaust Memorial).
LIVE TRANSPORT Interior of a boxcar used to transport people in World War Two (Photo: US Holocaust Memorial).

I find little solace in religion. Christianity offers many allusions to animals, often symbolic – the wolf laying down with the lamb, and, from the book of Matthew, references to God’s care of even the smallest sparrow.

I love gospel music, and “His Eye is on the Sparrow” (1905) is a favourite, but buried in the lines is an exhortation to think ourselves more than animals.

So I return to literature. Alice Sebold’s revelatory portrayal of the afterlife in The Lovely Bones (2002) contains a passage in which Susie, the main character, sights the family dog:

“At evensong one night, while Holly played her sax and Mrs. Bethel Utemeyer joined in, I saw him: Holiday, racing past a fluffy white Samoyed. He had lived to a ripe old age on Earth and slept under my father’s feet after my mother left, never wanting to let him out of his sight … I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he has slept beside. I did not have to wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.”

“Having experienced the unconditional love of a dog, I strongly suspect that the songs need rewriting.”

Knowing what was coming as Olive aged, I called her The Lovely Bones, whispering it into her ear as I carried her increasingly skeletal form up the back stairs in the dark after her dinner. She never gave up trying to climb them herself – such was the courage she showed in her desire to sit with us in the evening.

Olive protected us well, in the unseen territory of the heart. I can offer no proof that dogs have evolved after millennia of living with humans, apart from the love they show through their actions.

I remember the very moment she transitioned from puppy to watch-dog; the love she taught a flatmate who needed herding back to the hearth; the solace and constancy she showed me after my partner Jono died, and the courageous way she demanded I snap out of it when my grief saw her and Tully so neglected they both had fleas, ear-mites and knotted coats that needed my attention.

Faced with having to help her in her ultimate transition, my memories of the death of Richard Adam’s lapine protagonist, Hazel, were already in my fibre.

HAZEL'S JOURNEY from Watership Down (1978).
HAZEL’S JOURNEY from Watership Down (1978).

So, I’ll admit it, I called on souls already departed to come, like the Stranger did for Hazel in Watership Down.

“It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch … (the Stranger) reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed, and together they slipped away …”

Having experienced the unconditional love of a dog, I strongly suspect that the songs need rewriting: his eye is not on the sparrow, the sparrow’s eye is on him.

OLIVE'S LEAP
OLIVE’S LEAP

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.