October 2008

Essays

Tim Winton

Silent country

Mushroom Rocks, Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary. © Arvid Hogstrom.

Travels through a recovering landscape

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.

It takes a while for it to sink in, but the closer you get to the desert, the more life there is in the land; once you're fully beyond the reach of modern cultivation there are trees again, and from their shadows come enough birds, reptiles and mammals to let you feel you are finally back in Australia. Each time I traverse the dead zone of the wheat belt and reach this bit of territory, my mood lifts. What kind of man cheers up at the sight of roadkill?

This far inland I'm way off my patch and I feel it keenly. I'm a coastal person. My home is the white-sand-and-limestone country of the central west: grass trees, tuarts, banksia and coastal heath. My abiding interest is in the littoral. Even here in the reddening interior I gravitate to rims and edges, towards a region wedged between farm and desert that has its hooks in me, for past the last big wheat town of Dalwallinu, and before the gold diggings at Paynes Find, is a swathe of country that has taught me a lot about the mistakes of our common past and given me cautious hope for the future. Out here there's a different kind of littoral, where eucalypts and mulga scrub overlap in a wash of unlikely biodiversity. Along a stretch of road where, not long ago, you'd see country so goat-infested, so beaten-down and degraded that you could cry, something new is afoot. Here, in a state whose economy and mindset are bound up in an endless war against nature, private citizens have beheld the paralysis of government agencies and begun taking conservation into their own hands.

If all this sounds a little bleak and dramatic, remember that Australia has the worst record of mammal extinctions in the world. Since European settlement 27 species have disappeared entirely and 1500 birds, reptiles, plants, amphibians and mammals are currently vulnerable or endangered. Marsupials, the creatures unique to the continent, are in perilous decline and many of the smaller species are gone for good. Last century's massive land clearing devastated the habitat of native animals and within a human generation foxes and cats hunted the survivors to oblivion. National parks and reserves have not provided effective sanctuary because they are exposed to feral predators, and many large and remote holdings of the national estate are either too thinly staffed or not staffed at all. The result is that some rare marsupials now exist only by chance, in remnant populations on offshore islands. These stragglers are the focus of government breeding programs but, apart from zoos and other enclosures, agencies have few refuges on the mainland safe enough to release bred animals into. The chief sources of safe wild Australian habitat are now private. For the past decade, non-government organisations like Bush Heritage Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have been acquiring and reserving land for conservation purposes. Six million hectares are now held by private individuals or groups. Few will actually say that they've been doing governments' work for them, but this is more or less the case. Without private participation the state of habitat conservation in this country would be even more desperate than it is, and the prospects for mammal recovery in particular would be slim indeed.

The chief player in the private fight against native mammal extinction is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, a not-for-profit foundation that administers more than 2 million hectares of land for conservation and restoration. The AWC runs Mt Gibson Sanctuary, about 350 kilometres north-east of Perth, in the Yalgoo district. This is where I first came into contact with private conservation and where, for the first time since I was a child, a mammal species seized my imagination and became as emblematic to me as any marine creature.

I've been coming to Mt Gibson since the AWC acquired it as their first major purchase, in 2001. A former sheep station of 130,500 hectares, it is a large tract of transitional country bordering the vast dry salt pan of Lake Moore. The land within its boundaries still supports as many as 700 species of native plants in 13 major vegetation associations, and with every passing year of recovery - since being de-stocked and rid of feral goats, foxes and cats - it gets closer to being a continental refuge for mammal species long extinct from the area. My initial visit coincided with the first biological survey of the property, and although I've returned many times to camp and hike for my own pleasure as well as to witness its regeneration, it's been several years since my last visit.


In the late afternoon, when the bluish hummock of Mt Singleton shows in the far distance, I pull off onto the dirt drive that runs more than 40 kilometres east toward the old station homestead. I bounce past the slagheaps and junk piles of abandoned mine diggings. Already small trees - gimlets and jams - ladder the track with shadows. A mob of Major Mitchell cockatoos spills, untidy as a closing-time crowd, from a desert cypress. Every few minutes the track changes colour - yellow, pink, black, purple, vermilion, burgundy, gold - as contours and vegetation types vary.

At the State Barrier Fence, commonly known as the Vermin Proof Fence, I stop the LandCruiser and get out to swing back the gate. A desiccated emu carcass stands ensnared in the wire as an unwarranted reminder of the fence's function. In exceptionally dry seasons inland, emus head west in search of water, often moving in huge numbers. The fence, which is more than 1800 kilometres long, was built to keep them at bay, and periodically you still see news footage of the emu ‘plague', hundreds of enormous, thirst-crazed native birds stampeding south or battering themselves to death against the wire, cordoned off as though they were vermin.

The fence stands neatly in the centre of a cleared strip of orange dirt. The earth here looks hard-baked but its crust yields to the faintest pressure of my fingertips. You can easily forget how fragile the soil is in Australia. Until the arrival of Europeans the continent had never known the impact of hoofed animals. When great herds of sheep and cattle did arrive they made fortunes for their owners, yet pastoralism may well have cost the nation more than it will ever earn. The soil erosion and habitat loss resulting from the introduction of these herds (not to mention the millions of feral goats, pigs, rabbits, donkeys, horses and camels that wander the interior) has been catastrophic for native species. As a kid I spent a lot of time outdoors but I almost never saw the animals unique to the continent. I saw kangaroos (and then shot them, if I could) but smaller marsupials like bilbies and bandicoots were rare sights. Teachers told me, quite correctly, that these were shy creatures, nocturnal and wily into the bargain, but the darker truth is that these animals weren't hiding - they were locally or completely extinct. Much of Australia is silent country.

From the Vermin Fence I bash the rest of the way east along the rutted track to the sanctuary's homestead, a modest old place with sagging verandahs and outbuildings. There are stockyards nearby, a shearing shed and the usual array of once-loved vehicles that mark the property's former life as a sheep station. Two new staff dwellings have been built. I note the advent of solar panels, the four-wheel-drive vehicles with AWC livery and a mercifully quiet new generator in place of the roaring monster you could once hear a mile away at night. For the moment, though, everybody's elsewhere.


Back in the spring of 2001 the same compound was abuzz with scientists, the old shearers' cottage encircled by vehicles, bedrolls and caravans, and there were trailers piled with the equipment of zoologists, paleo-ecologists, entomologists and hardy bird-folks. I'd just finished a seven-year writing project and was enmeshed in a wearying public campaign for a coral reef in my spare time, so I arrived depleted, under-briefed and sceptical about this new philanthropic venture at the edge of the arid zone.

It was only seven years ago, but back then the AWC was a fresh entity, an unknown quantity. One of Western Australia's most senior scientists, a man I knew and admired, had suggested that I come and take a look while he was up there, but he made the mistake of telling me that the whole show was the brainchild of a very rich man, so naturally I expected the AWC to be a cashed-up corporation anxious to redeem itself with good works, or yet another ‘green' outfit confusing conservation with commerce. Perhaps only an Australian can be this leery of wealthy do-gooders. We don't exactly have a strong tradition of philanthropy. Most often we blame those convict beginnings and the hard-bitten settler mindset, and perhaps there's something to that. Compared with the settlement of America, for instance, which was savage enough on any terms, colonial Australia does seem to have been specially marked by dismay, hunger and disenchantment: place names like Useless Loop, Point Torment and Lake Disappointment are common. Here there was no promised land for the interlopers, little milk and even less honey. When wealth was finally generated, its beneficiaries rarely troubled themselves with old-world noblesse oblige or the ethical gestures that religious Americans were susceptible to. Having at last wrested something from the waterless frontier, the luckless colonists of the Australian west grasped hard and long at whatever they got. Along with their war on nature they maintained a stalwart resistance to charity; there was no room for softness of any sort, and it seems evident from the passage of time that the fixed mind has been no easier to prise open than the clenched fist.

Whether we like it or not, conservation traditionally involves the broke hounding the captive in the employ of the feebleminded. I never held out much hope that the Australian rich might one day enter the fray on the side of nature, especially not our peculiar western breed of moguls. Dreamers we may have been, but few local conservationists were utopian enough in 2001 to imagine something like the AWC in our midst, a flush, science-based entity without a political agenda. It sounded too good to be true. So when I arrived at Mt Gibson that spring in the full-blown siege mode of the campaigner, I was entranced by the landscape, though wary and privately cynical about the AWC. But within an hour of meeting its founder and benefactor, Martin Copley, I was disarmed.

With an odd mixture of authority and modesty, the quietly spoken Englishman outlined his plan to secure a network of wild refuges for native mammals. Around us, consulting specialists were already establishing which species were extant on the property and how many had been lost since the arrival of grazing and introduced predators. We visited trapping surveys, listened to cross-discipline discussions, and spread vegetation maps across the red-stained bonnets of vehicles. There was a rare sense of excitement in the company. None of the scientists I spoke to that week was troubled by anxiety that data and conclusions would be traduced or ignored, a fate not uncommon in a mining state where environmental assessments can seem like mere foreplay.

Taking me on a hike across the homestead ridge, Copley pointed out raptors' nests, ancient sandalwoods and the great dry pink expanse of Lake Moore. A former insurance magnate, he offered an unsentimental view of philanthropy. He said he'd learnt about native mammal extinction and now had the resources to do something about it - end of story. From the start he struck me as logical, purposeful, even steely. Scrupulously polite, he was impatient with symbolism; his instincts seemed strategic and empirical. Clearly he wasn't a guilty rich man, nor was he anybody's fool. In his own terms he simply saw a vacuum between government agencies and green advocacy groups and decided to fill it. He had committed the AWC to restoring country on an ecosystem basis, unhampered by the artificial boundaries of state and agency jurisdictions. While advocacy groups could only prod and finesse and shame government into enlarging its efforts, Copley's purchase at Mt Gibson dramatically increased Western Australia's reserve of critically important habitats at the stroke of a pen. Today his organisation is the biggest private conservation landholder on the continent. Having brought a new respectability to both philanthropy and conservation, the AWC has helped spawn something that may become the new environmental mainstream in this country.


Meanwhile, literally back at the ranch, I leave a note tucked into the flyscreen door of the homestead and decide to press further into the sanctuary so I can reach Lake Moore before dark. It's slow going. I have to ease the vehicle up the steep, guttered track of the homestead ridge, whose jagged greenstone surface shifts and slides beneath my wheels. Halfway up I see a telltale mound through the spindly acacias and pull up with a flutter of anticipation. Getting out as quietly as I can, I ease down the scree slope to the hummock of black and red and green stones that forms the nest of a mallee fowl. In a moment I see there's no bird here, and hasn't been for some time.

Resembling a big speckled chicken, the mallee fowl stands up to 60 centimetres tall. It's a discreet and elusive bird. The male constructs the nest by kicking dirt and stones into a circular mound with a central crater, in which he dumps vegetable matter upon which the hen will lay her eggs. Heat generated by the rotting detritus incubates the eggs, and hatchlings must fight their way unaided to the surface and then fend for themselves. Some nest mounds are six metres across. There are mallee fowl out here at Mt Gibson, but I never manage to luck onto them.

Back in the truck, I crest the ridge and go yawing and crunching down into a whole new landscape. To the east I can see the treetops of a salmon-gum woodland. To the north is the ridgeline of the Singleton Range. Before I head down into the valley of trees I make a little detour. I'm anxious about the light, but determined to make what has become a ritual visit whenever I'm here.

I stop the vehicle in a clearing that was once unremarkable to my unschooled gaze. When I first came here with the station's former owner, Peter Underwood, and the bird expert John Dell, I had no idea what we were looking at or what we might be searching for. Across the hard-packed red dirt there's a plate of exposed rock where I once knelt with the two older men to survey a few burrows that opened around its perimeter.

"Rabbits?" I murmured.

Underwood grinned and shook his head.

"Boodies," he said. "Boodies!"

"Boodies," I murmured doubtfully, looking to the birdman for some moral support, sensing a joke at my expense. Boodies? Yeah, right.

"Like a woylie," said John Dell, "Closely related."

Ah. Of course. Even I'd heard of the woylie. But like most of my countrymen, I couldn't have described one for love nor money.

The woylie belongs to the great treasury of marsupials that we revere and know nothing about. As I learnt that day, the boodie and the woylie are different species of bettong. A bettong is like a kangaroo no bigger than a modest teddy bear. Its face is more rounded than a kangaroo's, with the protuberant eyes of a possum. While the woylie (Bettongia penicillata) nests in the undergrowth of dry sclerophyll forest in remnant populations, the boodie (Bettongia lesueur) is the only macropod to shelter in burrows. It digs elaborate warrens, favouring rock lintels that give its redoubts security and unusual longevity. Like most marsupials it is omnivorous and nocturnal. It has a particular appetite for underground fungi.

"Look at that warren," said Peter Underwood admiringly. "You'd think they only just built it."

By this stage I was properly enthralled by the prospect of a boodie encounter. Wondering if we'd have to wait long, I began to calculate the approach of dusk, but before I could embarrass myself further the others broke the news that, although once widely distributed across the arid inland, the boodie has been extinct on mainland Australia since the early 1960s. The story of this extinction is familiar. The arrival of agriculture and pastoralism wrought catastrophic habitat loss. In their native state, small mammals did not have to contend with predatory carnivores like foxes and cats, for which they were easy meat. Under these new conditions the boodie population collapsed quite suddenly.

Still hunkered by the old warren, Peter Underwood confessed a conviction that somehow, one day, the boodie would return to Mt Gibson. His tone was wistful but also defiant, as if over time he'd inured himself to ridicule on this point. I thought again of the potent space that an absence becomes. The lost boodie is just a part of a wider absence, a pattern of extinction and silence that haunts this continent. Each time I come to Mt Gibson I think of Peter Underwood and his dream of boodies finding their way back to these burrows, like exiles returning to their former homes. With the passing of every year that notion has become a little less fanciful. In fact, it might soon be possible, because a partnership of public and private concerns has already seen the boodie begin its long easterly trek homeward.

The last natural strongholds of the boodie are two remote islands, Bernier and Dorre at Shark Bay. A little closer to shore in the estuarine shallows of the World Heritage Area squats the smaller Faure Island, another AWC sanctuary. In 2004 I travelled there with Martin Copley, Tim Flannery and the basketball star Luc Longley to help release boodies and other rare marsupials back into the wild, and it was a momentous experience.

I remember walking out at Faure into the low mulga just on dark, as stars took over the sky. From a carry cage tagged and supported like a case of impossibly rare jewels came a tiny creature snuggled within a hessian bag. I held it a minute or two while its heartbeat capered against my chest; it wouldn't have weighed a kilo. I was struck by the fineness of its limbs and I wanted to linger a while, but there were protocols to observe so I knelt in the red dirt between thorny bushes, lay the bag down gently and peeled it open so that the creature might emerge unassisted, and when it did I got my first glimpse of a boodie. When it got to its feet it twitched a moment as if to gauge the feel of its radio-tracking collar, glanced about with huge, dark eyes and bolted, zig-zagging out into the gloom of the bush, and witnessing it I found it difficult to maintain an empirical calm. One after the other, boodies and then several rare hare-wallabies shot out into the wild while I pumped my fist silently like a mad barracker on his last warning.

Despite their vulnerability to native owls and raptors, the original 17 boodies released on Faure Island have grown to a wild population of more than a hundred. Mt Gibson's old warrens are hundreds of miles south-east of Faure, and there are logistical problems to be solved before the first translocations can be undertaken, but at least with the new population thriving on the island, where the mainland is in plain view, the boodie is within striking distance of home.


Back at Mt Gibson, I'm struck by how much better the country looks in the years since it was de-stocked. There's more vegetation, so much less broken ground, and after a little rain the colours are vivid. Driving slowly down the valley through the shadow matrix of the woodland, I startle a euro, and then a red kangaroo as tall and insouciant as a man. Each pauses a moment to sniff the air before launching itself effortlessly out of sight. The euro has a distinctive upright posture, even on the move. Shaggy and auburn, it tucks its elbows in and hitches its shoulders back as if, conscious of its own diminutive stockiness, it's trying to seem as imposing as its big red cousin.

All about on the red dirt are fallen trees, York and salmon gums with their guts spilled open by termites that are gradually reducing them to the very soil they grew in. Here and there are remnant sandalwoods and clumps of gimlet but the dominant tree of the woodland is the coppery, lithe salmon gum, whose trunk has the luscious sheen of oiled and suntanned flesh. This tree seems perennially youthful, especially in the presence of York gums, which are heftier and only half-barked, as if suffering male pattern baldness. The asymmetrical Yorkie is mildly shambolic, scrofulous and hulking, but its gnarls and wens offer cover and roosts for birds, tiny mammals and reptiles. Everywhere you look there are trees that have simply had their day and fallen on their faces to become horizontal habitat. During the original AWC survey, Alexander Baynes identified, in a single hollow salmon gum, 283 jaws of half a dozen native mammal species, mostly dunnarts, many of which were recovered from owl pellets. His work at this and other sites has helped produce an invaluable picture of mammal species present at Mt Gibson before the arrival of feral pests like the fox and the cat. The list he produced is a rollcall of troubled species that includes not just the boodie and the woylie, but the elusive wambenger, the chuditch, the short-beaked echidna, and several species of dunnarts, bandicoots, bats, wallabies and mice.

Creatures with names like these would be at home in a satire by Jonathan Swift, so it should be no surprise to discover that the Dean's co-ordinates put Gulliver hereabouts. At the time Swift was writing there was indeed an austral island teeming with creatures more strange and marvellous than even he could imagine, but so quickly have they disappeared from view or from existence altogether that they can sometimes seem a product of mere fancy. The sad fact is that the citizen on the street in Sydney will have as little idea about what a dunnart is as his counterpart in London or Chicago. For the record, it is a carnivorous mouse-sized marsupial with huge ears. There are about 20 species of them.

Eventually the valley becomes a rutted old delta and eucalypts give way to jam and other kinds of acacia. Conscious that it would mean an all-night walk back to the homestead should I stake two tyres or get myself bogged beyond recovery, I take the sketchy track slowly.

Finally, with the sun gone beyond the western ridges behind me, I come out upon the great and terrible expanse of Lake Moore, at whose dry shore I'll make camp for the night. I've driven all day away from the coast in order to roll my swag out on the edge of yet another body of water, and a ghostly one at that. There are better campsites back in the salmon gums or up on the quartz ridges but the eerie blankness of the salt pan fascinates me. I've never slept here before. I want to be present at dusk and dawn to see what comes in from the shimmering distance.

Just on dusk, I walk a little way up the scree slope behind me to a low ridge where a quandong - such a shapely, mild-looking tree for a landscape as austere as this - lays down its fading shade towards the samphire edges of the salt pan below. A close relative of the sandalwood, the quandong produces a red stone fruit keenly sought by emus, who are responsible for spreading its seeds in their scat. Quandong fruits were a favourite bush food of Aborigines and in recent years they have enjoyed a minor vogue as a preserve. Beside the pale little tree I stare across the dimming lake. In the far distance, beyond the opposite shore at Mouroubra Station, the last of the sun hits a solitary dead eucalypt. The skeleton tree flares like a beacon for a few seconds and fades away. From the edge of the breakaway below me, another euro bounds out into the open and sets off south along the shore in the twilight.

Back at the vehicle, I tip my bed-roll onto the stony ground and cook a meal on the little propane stove. I sit in the gathering dark as bats flit overhead. The creepy, egg-like moon squeezes up out of the interior. A stiff easterly breeze begins to blast across the gritty surface of the lake and somewhere behind me a tree creaks. I climb into my swag to get out of the wind. I can see just as well from there.

I wake at midnight, surprised to have slept for almost four hours, startled by the passage of some emus. Later other creatures will move by unseen, thudding south. I snuggle back down but sleep eludes me. The moon overhead is almost oppressive and I hadn't anticipated the luminous expanse of the lake would be quite so intimidating. The broad wash of the Milky Way begins to look like a reflection of the salt pan below and after a few hours I have the discomforting sense of being pressed between two fierce fields of light.

I twist down into my canvas cocoon and cannot help but think of the three small girls who trekked alone through this country back in 1931. Theirs is a legendary journey, made famous by Philip Noyce's film Rabbit-Proof Fence. Molly Craig, Gracie Fields and Daisy Kadibil spent nights hiding in hollow logs and walked all day for nine weeks at the mercy of forces crueller and more implacable than landscape. And here I am, a big pink grown-up with a LandCruiser, beginning to feel - well, a little uneasy in the moonlight.


Just before dawn cockatoos begin to shriek up in the trees on the ridge, and as light comes up I roll out of my swag to make coffee while spinifex pigeons clatter past.

As I set off along the shore the first pinprick of sun is at the horizon. I veer out from the rocky breakaways that separate lake and land to walk amid the hundreds of animal tracks impressed into the soft crust of the salt pan. Lying north to south, Lake Moore is well over a hundred kilometres long. Here, at one of its narrower points, it's still several kilometres wide. It's bigger than a city, yet except for me the only thing moving on it this morning is the easterly.

I walk south until a dark mass appears in the distance. A newcomer could be forgiven for mistaking this smudge for a group of people, or a mob of kangaroos. It takes quite a few more minutes for this gathering to reveal itself as a long, winding alignment of upright stones. The stones are green-black hornblende schist from the breakaways back onshore. They vary in height from about 15 to 60 centimetres and have been embedded in the salt pan in a distinctly serpentine pattern that tightens at its western end into concentric coils like a fish trap. Yet there seem never to have been any fish in hypersaline Lake Moore.

When American archaeologists visited this site in 1966, they measured the startling stone configuration at more than 80 metres in length, and counted 437 upright slabs and 91 that had fallen over where they stood. They noted the remains of a footpad across the lakebed, a track that still leads directly to this site. The visitors were in no doubt that this was an Aboriginal ceremonial place and, in the spirit of the era, they set off in search of ‘informants' who might explain it to them. Forty-two years on, it's impossible to know how good their information was, for even back then traditional folkways had long been catastrophically ruptured by pastoralism and by racist government policies. By the time the Americans arrived local people were a sad diaspora, hundreds of kilometres apart in settlements without traditional association. This site is difficult to get to, and very little has been written about it since 1966, but it's generally agreed that it was an important meeting point for Noongar people from the south, Wongai from the desert and Yamatji from the coast. Across the lake there is an ancient dance-ground, a women's place related to this one, part of a series linked to ceremony and dreaming and trade.

Although the site on the lake is protected under federal legislation, its traditional custodian is a frail old man who lives nearly 200 kilometres away and upon his passing there is small prospect of the place having a new guardian with the full authority of traditional law.

There are human sites in this country that thrum with power, places whose ancient presences intimidate and confront, but this is not one of them. This feels like a monument to lost songs, languages, connections and clans, for a place like this, without its people, is bereft. Many of the 250-plus Aboriginal languages have been lost since the colonial era and too many folkways have disappeared in our own time. The perverse and unpalatable reality is that since 1967 the well-meaning and progressive policies of every state and federal government have bequeathed the sort of physical and cultural destruction that the earlier racist dispensation could not. Despite political successes, there are likely now more Aboriginal Australians in ill health, without education or employment than in the years of my childhood, more adults without agency in either tradition or modernity, more young people illiterate in every sense.

After previous visits to this ancient site I have walked away consumed by sadness and anger. I formed the conviction that it was a lost place, another bit of silent country, but this was presumptuous of me. In recent years Aboriginal people have begun to visit Mt Gibson and Lake Moore more frequently, either seeing these sites for the first time or revisiting them in an effort to revive the old and educate the young. Separated by great distances, some Aboriginal people are looking to the internet as a tool for the encryption and propagation of secret and sacred lore, and although cultural connections are sometimes as sketchy as the register of extant species of marsupials hereabouts, the will to recovery offers some cause for optimism. Even seven or eight years ago, when the surrounding country bore all the disheartening marks of degradation, it was harder to sense much human promise hereabouts, but this year, in a landscape brimming with new growth, hope for the cultural and the environmental future of the region is just that little bit easier to cling to.

Even a decade ago the old war on nature was the prevailing mindset in this part of Australia, and it seemed unassailable. Its code lived in every bullet-riddled sign, every bleached paddock, every redneck bumper sticker and depressing roadhouse conversation, but something has definitely shifted. There is a new attitude to country, a sense of responsibility and respect evident in the language and actions of land users and custodians in the region. The neighbouring sheep station, White Wells, was recently de-stocked and is now Charles Darwin Reserve, under the Bush Heritage group, thanks to a bequest from Darwin's great-great grandson Chris. On the northern boundary of Mt Gibson, within sight of where I stand, Ninghan Station has become an Indigenous Protected Area. Its stewards, the Bell family, are of Badimia descent. The Badimia are the Yamatji clan with closest traditional links to Lake Moore and the Bells have the responsibility of conserving Indigenous sites and restoring natural heritage on their lease. Alongside the AWC sanctuary at Mt Gibson, these properties provide critical vegetation reserves and a crucial wildlife corridor in a region that has been flogged for years.

These projects are all private concerns, the labour of mere citizens. The native flora and fauna under their protection belongs to the state, but their operations are leaner, nimbler, and can be more immediately responsive than most state environmental agencies, which are politicised and bureaucratically inert. Faithful public servants have to endure vacillations of policy, infuriating budgetary constraints and the cold reality that almost every other arm of government is hostile to conservation. The advent of this new movement will hardly make the work of government agencies redundant. Nor does the emergence of private philanthropy mean that strident advocacy has become unnecessary - far from it - for most significant gains in conservation must still be won in the brutal and sapping rhetorical arenas of the courts, the parliament and the media. But the arrival of a quiet and respectable third way is a critical part of the cultural change needed in Australia if we are to restore our scorched earth.

Up on the ridge, above the barely perceptible tracks of the ancients, I look out on the bewildering expanse of the lakebed that here and there manufactures the illusion of water as the day's heat gathers. It's hard to know what to hope for in all this dazzling light, hard to separate wishful thinking from something more substantial. The far shore, like the past itself, looks foreign indeed, swimming off behind countless interleaving blurs and mirages, but around me in the trees and schist and termite mounds, in the buzzing air and crackling leaf litter, the recovering world feels close and familiar, upstanding and new. You can sense the country gaining strength again, fighting back, and on a fresh morning like this you really can imagine boodies bunkering down in their old warrens, like forward scouts dug in ahead of a wider repatriation.

Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a writer. His most recent novel is The Shepherd’s Hut.

Cover: October 2008

October 2008

From the front page

Image of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews

Called to account

Victoria’s second wave has landed a heavy blow

Image from ‘Hamilton’

America’s imperfect angels: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’

Post Black Lives Matter, the hit musical already feels like a souvenir from a vanished pre-Trump America

Image from First Cow

Milk it: ‘First Cow’

Kelly Reichardt’s restrained frontier film considers the uneasy problems of money and resources

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

A unitary theory of cuts

The Morrison government is using the COVID-19 crisis to devastate the public service, the ABC, the arts and tertiary education


In This Issue

The return of the Wichita Lineman

Glen Campbell’s ‘Meet Glen Campbell’
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Daniel Mannix & BA Santamaria

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

24/7

‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill


More in The Monthly Essays

Image of Samantha Brett of 7 News reporting on the ‘Ruby Princess’

Storm in a port: The unfolding disaster of the Ruby Princess

The system breakdowns onboard and onshore that led to the docking of the coronavirus cruise ship

Image of Sydney Roosters versus St George Illawarra Dragons, 2020

The art of class war

How decades after Murdoch and Packer destroyed the popular appeal of a game created for the masses, Peter V’landys is putting rugby league back on top

Image of Donald Trump mask

American carnage

Donald Trump and the collapse of the Union

The man inside and the inside man

Crime, punishment and indemnities in western Sydney’s gang wars


Read on

Image from First Cow

Milk it: ‘First Cow’

Kelly Reichardt’s restrained frontier film considers the uneasy problems of money and resources

Image of book cover of Summer by Ali Smith

The summer’s tale: On Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet

Addressing climate crisis and global pandemic, the concluding book in Ali Smith’s quartet reminds us that an ending is also a beginning

Image of shadow minister for agriculture and resources Joel Fitzgibbon during Question Time

Political maverick

Joel Fitzgibbon is starting to resemble Barnaby Joyce in his deliberate departure from the political mainstream

Image from Day in the Life by Karrabing Film Collective

MIFF 68 ½ at home

Films by Kelly Reichardt, Ulrike Ottinger, Ja’Tovia Gary and Djibril Diop Mambéty captivate, despite a radically different festival format


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