Category Archives: Rural Childhood

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.

Back in town

Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).
DAY IN COURT Inverell Court House, built in 1886 (Photo: Cgoodwin).

A Writer returns to the scene of the crime. 

MORE than 20 years after my family moved away from the country town of Inverell, leaving behind failed dreams and a broken marriage, I returned on a rainy evening in late 2003 with some unfinished business.

I’d called ahead to my grandmother, who was still living there in a nursing home. Before taking her to lunch the next day, I dropped into the local courthouse, an imposing clock tower at the centre of town, where a helpful woman proceeded to assist me in finding my mother’s name in the court records.

The court staffer didn’t flinch when it quickly became apparent we were not looking for a plaintiff of any kind, but rather a defendant. Trouble was, I had no specific dates to search, only the barest clues from what I’d been told about mum’s appearance in the court on a shoplifting charge sometime in the 1970s.

That meant mum’s name was still on the police computer database, in which the dates became brutally clear: just before Christmas, 1977, the police had made their way to our property off the Bingara Road, with complaints from two Inverell shops that mum had stolen childrens’ clothing and kitchen implements.

All court records prior to 1980 were stored in the archives of the New England University at the nearby city of Armidale. Would I like them faxed over? I agreed to return to the police station adjacent to the courthouse when they were ready.

Next, I dropped into the council chambers with a request. I had in my possession a hand-sized flat stone which had been picked up off the driveway of our farm, a flint-like rock with a broad space for a thumb to hold the sharpened edge to use it for cutting – an aboriginal hand axe of indeterminate age.

I asked if there was any kind of Aboriginal cultural heritage centre, or perhaps a museum, which would be interested in taking this stone tool off my hands?

The council staffer held her gaze with an open, shocked mouth, and shook her head, muttering “no…,” and, “good luck with that,” before leaving.

The tourist information centre had the name of an Aboriginal elder who lived locally. I drove the streets of our old neighbourhood searching for the address, but there was no-one home, and the only Aboriginal public office was well and truly closed.

SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.
SHOW & TELL Aboriginal hand axes from Arnhem Land.

I began to wonder whether the stories I’d been told about this stone were true, or if they’d been elaborated into family myths? I had taken it to school for ‘show and tell’, with the family name written on it using thick black marker pen in my mother’s hand. She was interested in anthropology, and we had inherited all kinds of fossils and artefacts at her death at decade before.

But on returning to the riverside shopping centre to buy grandma a present, my doubts were allayed by the wall built of local stone at the gateway, the very same blue, brown and ochre basalt. The wall was all that remained of the department store built by my ancestors in the town. I knew then I had the right rock back in the right region.

Grandma was dressed and eager to get out and about, waiting for me outside the door of the nursing home. We laughed as I lifted her into the passenger seat of my four-wheel drive, me allaying any embarrassment she felt by reminding her of the hundreds of times she had lifted me into a car when I was a child.

We had a lovely lunch. She enjoyed the meal and hearing all my news about life in the big city. We’d corresponded about family stuff many times, and it seemed a waste of time to go over it all again – she and I had come to terms already. We loved one another, that’s all that mattered.

I dropped her home when she started to tire, and headed out of town, along a well-trodden road into the uplands south west of Delungra, where fields of wheat in black soil run for miles and miles under enormous skies.

I’d met the present owner a few years before, but I hadn’t come to see the house again. I’d picked-over the traces of my family’s dream many times before: the room where my baby brother died, and the hopeful imprint my parents had made on a property which was derelict when they moved there.

I looked over the stones on the driveway, and sure enough, scattered along the verges were more of those flinty fragments like the larger one in my pocket.

I was headed a few kilometres further west, to a lonely place on the Bingara Road, where a memorial had been built in the year 2000 to the Aboriginal men, women and children who were slaughtered on a hillside in 1838 at the hands of European settlers in what came to be known as the Myall Creek Massacre.

MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).
MASSACRE SITE: The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Photo: Department of Environment: Mark Mohell).

There, I walked along the trail which marks the gruesome milestones of this iconic event – the first time in Australia’s history that settlers were tried and hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people.

I took the Aboriginal axe, with our family name impossible to erase from it, and buried it at the site, not only out of respect for the Aboriginal lives lost, but also those in my own scattered family.

Night was falling when I arrived back at the Inverell police station, where a large envelope awaited me. At a motel out of town I pored over its contents, like some terrible play in which my parents were protagonists.

Buried deep in the court transcripts, describing in detail how mum was found guilty of multiple counts of theft, was the news of one shop owner who’d waived all charges in the light of the psychologist’s report, and the one who’d refused.

The sentence in Mulawa Womens’ Prison in Sydney, a day’s drive away from her children, detailed the number of days’ imprisonment resulting from the value of each item of clothing stolen.

The transcripts of friends who stood in the dock spoke of her good character.

The psychologists’ report itself – one clinical, succinct letter linked mum’s behavior to deep feelings of guilt and shame about the death of her third child, the result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

And then the suspended sentence – no jail time to be served, in exchange for a warrant of good behaviour.

I suddenly understood why mum did not put up a fight for her financial share of the marriage settlement. Buying her freedom had cost our family dearly, and walking away with nothing but a car and some furniture, she might have felt she’d repaid her dues.

I could also see why she eventually left town, allowing the myth to emerge that she’d left dad, not the truth, which was all the other way around. Our family name on ‘Burge Bros.’, an Inverell shopfront, speaks of our pedigree as descendants of proud local shopkeepers, which mum might have felt was brought into disrepute by a depressed city girl. Housed in the same precinct was the shop whose owner would not forgive her.

I remembered how mum recalled being interviewed by the police after my brother died. It was a matter of course, apparently, that the mother was the first subject of investigation after the death of a child who had been laid in his bed by her arms only hours before. Lindy Chamberlain was to face that same moment only seven years later.

And I remembered it was mum who told me about the Myall Creek Massacre. While the other adults were playing tennis at the courts near the creek, she pointed to the hillside and whispered to me about what had occurred. Whispered. Not to the other kids, or any of the white adults enjoying weekend sport, but just to me.

The Myall Creek Massacre memorial was eventually the subject of an Australian Story episode in which descendants of the settlers who committed the crimes reached out in reconciliation to the descendants of the Wirrayaraay people who were slaughtered.

SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.
SET IN STONE Plaque at the Myall Creek Massacre memorial.

But in its first decade, it endured vandalism. Not brainless destruction, but calculated censorship of the facts about the case and its impact on lives.

It’s a beautiful part of the world, the place I was born, but it can be a harsh place too.

The shock and grief wrought on one family in the wake of the sudden death of one baby tells us how magnified the same emotions would have been after the sudden slaughter of multiple defenceless women, children and old men at Myall Creek, but despite the well-known contributing factors of depression and grief-related kleptomania, there was little reconciliation or understanding on offer for my mother in the 1970s. The community was still coming to terms with what happened to the Wirrayaraay.

Mum got away from Inverell and made a new life. Grandma died in 2008 and we gathered in Inverell for her funeral, but no-one in our family lives there anymore.

I’ll go back to Myall Creek one June for the annual memorial service. Hearing the true story of the place probably marks the start of my journey to being a writer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.