Travels Through a Recovering Landscape
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In the great sickle-shaped hinterland of the Western Australian wheat belt, trees have been exterminated. Like embroidered motifs at the hem of a bleached and threadbare rug, a few lonely specimens mark the corners of paddocks. Now and then you’ll encounter a remnant stand of wandoos spared because of hulking domes of granite underfoot, but most of what you see is a land scraped utterly naked. Today, as I drive north from Perth toward the old pastoral lease at Mt Gibson Station, a wicked easterly howls in off the desert and the sky is pink with dirt. Less than a century ago this bit of country was a series of eucalypt woodlands of remarkable biodiversity, but it was bulldozed and burned at the urging of successive governments to make way for cultivation. The fragile soil exposed by all this tree grubbing was quickly depleted; then it was laced with billions of tonnes of the miracle additive superphosphate, which lured two generations of farmers into the delusion that their operations were sustainable. Emboldened by good seasons and high prices, grain farmers pushed right out into the drylands. At the time it must have seemed that nature itself was surrendering to human ingenuity and the vigour of a new settler culture.
I remember driving through wheat country on winter's nights as a boy to see mile upon mile of burning windrows, whose parallel lines were like the columns of an army on the march. When I was a kid, the sons of wheat farmers believed they would inherit something precious. This was before the creeping insurgency of salt and the arrival of an almost permanent drought. Farmers have been walking off the land here for more than a decade, and those who hang on to their scorched-earth inheritance are given incentives to plant the very trees their fathers were paid to grub up. For many it's probably too little, too late.
While it still enjoys a residual heroic romance in Western Australian culture, to me the northern wheat belt is the most sterile and desolate bit of country imaginable. Travelling through it today I see kilometres of empty, gentle undulation, taut wire fences, stubble. I see pale dust raked into corduroy grids that proceed toward the horizon, grain silos at lonely rail sidings, hamlets with few signs of life. It's all very orderly, but nothing moves except the flying soil. Heading north towards the semi-arid zone of the goldfields and the red desert beyond, you instinctively resign yourself to the prospect of seeing even less, and for a while the landscape obliges. Fences begin to dwindle and then disappear altogether. The earth turns a deeper pink and the bitumen two-lane of the Great Northern Highway unravels into the wavering distance where country becomes flatter, wider, drier, and hotter by the minute. But then, oddly enough, you begin to see roadkill - emus, cockatoos, kangaroos - bloated and flyblown at the gravel edges. You come to shimmering salt pans around which grow purple, green and salmon-coloured samphires. In time the plains of low mulga scrub become variegated with she-oak thickets, aggregations of pale acacia, and then rising above everything, bronze and shining, gnarly old York gums.