February 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Formal night in Gunnedah

By Helen Sullivan
Not even a drought can stop this NSW country town’s night of nights

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon at the Gunnedah Services & Bowling Club and, inside, students and teachers from Gunnedah High School are carrying tables and adjusting flower arrangements. Someone frets over a bunch of balloons, while someone else is testing the PA system. It’s four hours until the Year 12 formal commences, and Haylee Murrell, 18, has a hair appointment to get to.

She sits down with me to talk about how the current drought – causing some of the lowest rainfall levels ever recorded in New South Wales – has affected her. Haylee is the deputy school captain and a formidable scholar (later, she will win seven awards at the prize-giving ceremony), and as she answers my questions she looks straight at me, hardly breaking eye contact – except to glance at the time. She has wanted to study agriculture, “ag”, since she was little. But this year has made Haylee more committed than ever. Climate change, she says, needs to be tackled sooner rather than later. “It’s probably just as big, if not bigger, than the food crisis,” she says. “I’ve heard so many weathermen say, ‘This is only the start of the drought.’”

Gunnedah (which means “place of white stones” in Kamilaroi) is a small farming town on the Namoi River, five hours’ drive from Sydney and within the fertile Liverpool Plains region. Although coal has been mined here for more than 140 years, production ramped up significantly in 2012, tripling rents. Dorothea Mackellar’s family owned property in Gunnedah and she visited often; her iconic poem, “My Country”, is said to be about her family’s farm here.

She wrote it when she was 19 years old.

Along the approaches to Gunnedah, signs protesting coalmining line the roads. In the small town of Breeza, “FARMS NOT COAL” is painted on a grain silo in metres-high red letters. Snaking across the plains is the freight line. Sometimes it’s visible; sometimes it disappears over a rise or behind a cluster of gum trees. The trains pound along beside me as I drive; I wait while they rush past at crossings, their wagons piled high with coal. In Gunnedah, when they appear throughout the day, they make the town feel like it’s in a music video or a dream.

Sitting beside Haylee at a table decorated with native flowers, silver stars and yellow paper napkins, Courtney Grosser says her parents used to farm, but about five years ago they started working at one of the nearby coalmines. They miss being outside all day, she says. At the same time, farming is lonely, and “when you’re in the mine, you work with other people and it’s like a little community underground”.

Haylee’s mum grew up on a farm, but when a drought came it became unviable. The other thing you miss, says Haylee, is that on a farm “you’re probably making your own personal gains, you’re not doing someone else’s business for them”.

Haylee and Courtney will soon vote for the first time, but they’re reluctant to discuss it. “It’s more just your own thing, because you know everyone has different views and then it just turns into a big shitfight,” says Courtney. I ask what she’s going to do now that high school is over, and she says she’s not sure – it depends on what job she can get, but Gunnedah is getting smaller by the moment, because of the drought. “It’s kind of dying,” she says. Hayley disagrees: “Businesses are having to close up shop because there’s no more money, but the community is more close-knit than it has ever been, because everyone’s trying to help each other.” She looks at her phone and says she doesn’t mean to be rude, really, but she has to go.

I step out of the air-conditioned building into Mackellar’s “hot gold hush of noon”. The town’s main road has three names – Conadilly Street, the Oxley Highway and the Kamilaroi Highway – and at the eastern end is Delores Worthington’s house. The Gunnedah senior citizen of the year has invited me to page through her scrapbook of the town’s debutante balls. I turn plastic sleeves that hold images of the same stage changing year to year – draped curtains pinned with a tinfoil moon and stars; painted backdrops of bending palm trees, and paper carnations – as she talks about the prices that mining company Shenhua has paid for local farms, and the money it has donated to fix up the bathrooms at the local old-age home. The company is also hoping to develop a thermal coalmine in the Liverpool Plains. Of climate change Delores says, “I think when it happens I’ll be gone.” My eye lands on a quote from a 2004 deb ball clipping: “It’s the first time they are people, rather than students.”

The Year 12 formal starts with an acknowledgment of country from James Hogbin, a former classmate. “Congratulations to those who made it. Many didn’t, myself included.” I am seated with Ashleigh Mills and Lucy Moore, two Year 11s who will be the next school captain and vice-captain. Dressed in their uniforms, they’ve just returned from the Northern Schools Prime Steer Show at Inverell, after waking up at 5.30am to shampoo, blow-dry and brush the tail of “Captain” the school steer. He won sixth place, and both Lucy and Ashleigh came fourth in the oral presentations. Lucy’s was about the drought (it began with lines from Mackellar’s poem), and she spoke about the effects on farmers’ mental health, the price of cattle feed, and the fundraiser she and Ashleigh had organised at the school, where you could pay to see a teacher kiss a cow. They had other activities planned – including Throw the Gumboot – but it started to rain so they had to cancel them and watch a movie, Red Dog, in the gym instead. Like Haylee, Lucy plans to study ag. Ashleigh wants to be a vet. Both Lucy and Ashleigh are part of their school’s ag program, which is growing thanks to the donation of a plot of land by Whitehaven Coal.

Kurrumbede, Dorothea Mackellar’s family farm, is located a half-hour drive from the town. If a planned Whitehaven Coal extension goes ahead, her old house will find itself within a few hundred metres of a railway servicing the mine, a new access road and a conveyor belt. The open-cut mine will be 1.2 kilometres away, and round-the-clock controlled blasting will send dust and noise to the house, replacing Mackellar’s “drumming of an army / The steady, soaking rain”.

Ashleigh says she’s noticed the effect of the drought at the local discount store, Crazy Sam’s, where she works after school. Her classmate Taryn Maher – a junior Olympic gold medallist in golf – noticed it at her after-school job, too. “I work at Woolies, so we get a lot of farming people come in and they buy heaps of water and fruit and veg. They spend heaps of money on just those. When I first started last year it wasn’t so bad, but as it’s started to heat up it’s gotten worse.” Lucy’s after-school job is at a cafe called The Verdict. She’s noticed the effects of the drought mainly on her family’s farm. “It’s sad. You see Dad come home – and you can tell when it’s drought.”

Someone at the microphone clears their throat, and the room quietens for the prize-giving. Most of the awards are sponsored by local businesses – the leatherworks, the cotton growers association, law firms – and two are sponsored by Boggabri Coal Operations. Courtney, in a royal blue dress, wins the Caltex Award for best all-rounder. There are speeches (“There’s nothing wrong with chasing your dreams, though they may not eventuate straight away”) and songs (Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind”), and then the formal proceedings are done. Dessert is served, the lights are dimmed, and DJ Semi-Automatic starts his set. Ashleigh is disappointed when none of the Year 12s stay to dance. Next year, she says, she’ll dance no matter what.

Helen Sullivan

Helen Sullivan is a Sydney-based freelance writer. She has appeared in The New Yorker and The Guardian


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