STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH
‘Driving home I see those flooded fields
How can people not know what beauty this is
I’ve taken it for granted my whole life
Since the day I was born
Clouds hang on these curves like me
And I kneel to the wheel
Of the fox confessor on splendid heels
And he shames me from my seat
And on my guilty feet
I follow him in retreat’
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
‘Okay, run,’ says my husband in an under-voice as our daughter chases quacking after a flock of ducks. We have just gotten her back from a walk that was too much for her, howling and sobbing all the way ‘Walking! Walking!’ Now she is happy again among the plum trees and outbuildings of Brickendon farm. I turn and don’t run exactly, but walk quickly in the other direction, around a corner out of sight and down the pale cream farm track running through the hedgerows and fields, running down to the Macquarie River.
Lou and I have been planning this walk for a while. Brickendon and Woolmers are two World Heritage farming properties that face each other across a broad river valley and flood plain. I’ve worked at Woolmers and nearby Longford, picked sloes with my husband from the hedgerows to make sloe gin, loved the sunsets in this enormous sky, the sudden floods and river fogs and the enormous sense of space punctuated by the patchwork of hedges of the old ‘model’ farms. Now Lou is waiting down the other end of this lane somewhere, while my husband distracts our daughter. They will meet us on the other side.
While today is warm, the big sky is low and curdled with clouds promising more rain. The paddocks are still green and the grazing horses stand nearly belly-deep in grass. The hedgerows are mostly hawthorn, their flowering nearly done. From within the grip of their thorns I hear the tiny ‘peeeep peeeeep’ of wrens or finches. The constant breeze flowing from the Tiers across the Midlands is delicious. It’s a beautiful day and I love it here. The Northern Midlands are bound up for me in memories of one of the happiest times of my life.
The laneway comes to a T-shaped junction. One arm leads north to a jetty and the river. The other side runs south in the lee of another hedgerow, along the knees of the gentle hill before it falls into meadows and floodplains and the Macquarie. I keep an eye out for Lou – it’s funny. I should be able to see her. There’s surely not much between here and Woolmers hill on the other side of the river. Then I spot her, waving her arm and standing surrounded by bulrushes where the track turns east again. She is so far away she looks tiny. How could I have missed her in all this space?
When I reach her, Lou says she’s been loving the quiet and space and having it to herself for a little while. As we walk back along the path we reach the first levy wall. She tells me in a low voice that she thinks there’s a dog up ahead off its leash. ‘It’s black and white. We should be careful – it might be unpredictable, might not let us pass.’
There is only one path along the levy. A cranky dog would block the way as sure as Cerberus, I think.
We keep walking along the levy wall, through an alleyway of bulrushes and high grasses flanked by a drainage ditch on our right. We float maybe seven feet high or more above the fields below. Suddenly the levy dips lower, lined with a concrete spillway for water to pass over. Yes, the floods will flow that high. There’s the proof.
I glimpse a black and white shape half hidden by the reeds and grasses up ahead. We go warily but we don’t want to turn back. The ‘dog’ freezes at the sight of us, then lopes away off the levy into the reeds. It’s a young cat, barely out of kitten-hood. First my eyes, then Lou’s are baffled by perspective and scale in this open space. This river country is a tricksier place than it first seems.
The levy is not really made for us to walk on, but to direct the flow of floodwater. It feels solid, but oddly precarious. The topmost layer is road metal, a crushed grey rock not native to here. In places, I see it is crazed with cracks from flood damage. We see flood-wrack marooned above the fields like mad basket-work. Everywhere we look there is the evidence of floods. The meadows look like they were once wetlands drained by their network of ditches, causeways and levies over 150 years old.
Winter brought terrible floods this year, taking the lives of three people and destroying farms and roads throughout Northern Tasmania. For all the order and prosperity of this country, the muddy Macquarie River is still wild and sly, giving with one hand and taking with the other. It floods every year, bringing fertile fields but sometimes stock losses and ruined fences and livelihoods as well. The lush grass comes with a price of chaos and loss every year.
Everywhere we look water is being managed, diverted and trapped but ultimately the river will win. It is your host and it’s folly to reckon without it. This farm is a work of art, of minds and bodies over many years but it’s not tame. Perhaps nowhere really is?
I ask Lou what our walk makes her think of? ‘I’m thinking of the past,’ she says.
Being a historian changes how you see the world. You see things in layers, and in Tasmania it’s easier to see those layers running across each other than anywhere else I know. But it’s funny: today I only want to see the present, and float down Time’s stream into the future like everyone else, on the surface of things. The fields, the smell of clover, the smell of river mud, the basketwork of reedy flood-wrack. The art and craft of the farm as it lives and breathes around us. Today I’m finding it hard to care much about the past at all.
We see interpretation panels that introduce the convict men who worked here for the Archer family, digging the drainage ditches and levy, and drawing water from the river. They all seem to be about managing the flow of water. Also, all the stories are of men’s lives. This open space was a masculine domain. Women’s lives were enclosed in courtyards and attics, dairies and drawing rooms. I doubt two women could walk from Brickendon to Woolmers without supervision. Then I laugh to myself: walking anywhere for pleasure is very much a middle class thing. Working class or convict women wouldn’t be seen walking alone without suspicion, but they would probably wonder what the fuss was about. And despite myself I’m thinking about the past after all, swimming deep in it.
Does Lou have any convict ancestors? ‘My Dad said we didn’t – I went looking and found one in New South Wales.’
‘Me too,’ I say. ‘Patrick Carroll came as a convict during the potato famine from Ireland. From his description I think he would have looked like my brother.’
There was a time when it was fashionable for us to feel sorry for convicts as victims of the system, and proud of what they endured, especially if they number among our ancestors. I find I feel less sorry for the ‘old lags’ these days. Yes, they were probably excluded from owning a parcel of this prime country. Yes, they were often excluded socially and economically by the families that exploited their free labour – but ultimately they would have had more opportunities in Australia both to sell their labour but also even to own land or run a business. Things that ‘back home’ were unimaginable. Your small holding could be a dream here. Back in Britain? Not a chance.
As we near the river I draw a deep breath and another. The air is… stuffy. I hadn’t expected that. On the Norfolk Plains there is the constant breeze, sometimes cool and sometimes icy: the breath of the Western Tiers. Down on the flood plain that breath is gone and for all the sense of openness and space, the air here feels thicker, swampier.
I say people writing casually about the hedgerows being built ‘out of nostalgia for England’ makes me cross. These fields, like the drainage ditches, weren’t about creating Ye Olde Englande in the new country. They were up to date farming methods. The Archers, their managers and workers brought their knowledge farming from the old country and applied it to the new. It’s too easy to tease out meanings that the early settlers wouldn’t have necessarily seen, to accuse them of ‘avoiding’ views or turning their backs on their land with their enclosed gardens and fields, or of morbid nostalgia for ‘home’. Like most of the great estate farms, the home sites of Woolmers and Brickendon were chosen with a keen eye for position and view of the surrounding country. It’s hard to believe that aesthetic choice as well as pragmatism wouldn’t have played a part in that.
That being said there’s a darker side that I think about later, after this walk. Yes, hedgerows block wind, create microclimates and stop stock straying, but ultimately enclosures mark possession. In Britain they were used in a deliberate effort to exclude peasant farmers from commonly held land, to gather it up and bring it under the possession of a few very wealthy men. I can’t ignore that it was the same here. Not only the dispossession of the first people, but the exclusion of the small holders off this prime land. I doubt there was much opportunity here for labourers and their wives to own their own bit of land, to herd sheep or cows, plant crops or tend to pigs and geese. This land was too valuable except to be given as a gift by the Crown to their most favoured servants. That would change in the soldier settlement schemes of WW1 and WW2. In turn some of the farming families of the Midlands would feel dispossessed as their land was parcelled off to returning soldiers by a grateful government. The boundaries of these estates that look so eternal, have shifted and changed over the centuries, and are more fluid than they first appear.
Lou says when she paints this place, she wants to work to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’, for the sense of peace it brings her.
‘You know how I’ve never been to England,’ I say. ‘Does this remind you of the hedgerows and fields there?’
I can see Lou looking with a loving eye across sweep of plain between Ben Lomond in the East and Dry’s Bluff in the West, and the curve of the sly, muddy Macquarie River. ‘I think it’s more beautiful because I can see our mountains.’
‘Our mountains.’ I like the sound of that. I like that we can share them, and I like that they might be a little bit mine. Or I might be a little bit theirs. They are certainly Lou’s and she is most certainly theirs.
I wonder what it would be like to live in a place, for your family to have lived there for generations, and to decide to share it with the world, to have your property part of UNESCO’s World Heritage list. I guess that makes this place a little bit ours as well. We get to share it, too. I like that. I am always looking for places to belong to – that can be a little bit mine, and I can be a little bit theirs.
We climb up the swinging bridge over the river to the other side, to Woolmers. A dead tree swept by the floods is now almost interwoven with the bridge some five or six metres in the air. The old house sits above us on the hill, but for now we follow the local fishing path below across the paddock, stomping through the long grass to scare off any snakes, to where my husband and daughter wait in the car.
To walk it, think about it and then write about it – perhaps that’s another kind of claiming. To impudently insist: ‘I know! I know!’ when so many people are so much more closely entwined here than I could hope to be. But walking across this river valley still helps me know it better than I did before. It’s slippery, tricksy country, eluding me like a fish between my fingers. I found I was reluctant to write about it – perhaps because I was reluctant to tease it apart, for it to lose some of the magic that it has for me.
In one of my favourite gardens are carved the words of Diogenes: ‘It is solved by walking.’
‘Yes,’ I think, and then change it. I need to know it in my body to know it in my imagination. Maybe that’s what this first year of Stone and Tree has been about.
‘It is known by walking – the land is known by walking.’