I grew up in a country town called Stawell, on the final southern fingernail of the Great Dividing Range. Three corners of the compass were surrounded by lifts in the landscape, from the sandstone cliffs of the Grampians in the west to the ambitiously named Pyrenees in the north. Between the northern and western points, however, was a great sweep of flat Wimmera plains, leading onto an even greater expanse of flat Mallee plains. One could continue walking in that direction and encounter only undulations in the landscape for nearly a thousand kilometres, finally reaching the red dirt jags of the Flinders Ranges over in South Australia. Looking west over the town from Big Hill, in the centre of it all, then turning your back on civilization and respite to take in the nothing emptiness to the north. Things came rushing in through that vacant space when the wind swung around, like tastes of dust on the tongue, or bushfires in the summer.
My Dad’s family are from out there, concentrated in a small town called Woomelang in the heart of the Mallee. I was up there over Christmas a while back. A lot of the extended family were there, and presents were being handed out. My Uncle Alan and Auntie Mandy were presented with a huge, square gift that turned out to be suitcases. Mandy looked excited, Alan looked away.
“Now this means, dad,” my cousin Kirsten proclaimed, “that you have to actually use them.” I didn’t really know what she was talking about. Later on, in the car on the way home, I asked my own dad about it. “Your Uncle Alan,” he began, “hasn’t left the farm for more than a weekend, ever.”
Their family – and I guess mine too – have been in Woomelang for four generations. The farm that my Uncle Alan and his kids live on is where he and his brothers – including my dad – grew up. The house where they were raised still stands; weatherboard and corrugated iron overcome by weeds, rot and rust. The new house – clean brick veneer encircled by deep verandas – stands a short walk away. There Uncle Alan raised his own family, who, while doing the dishes, would glance up for a moment and find their family history staring at them through the window.
As a kid I’d always liked him – he was always loud and funny, which is nearly always enough when you’re young – but now, as an adult, something else was emerging. Beneath the bluster, beneath the dusty Mallee dryness, he was so attached to that plot of land, those red dirt paddocks and empty dams and stunted Mallee Gums, that he couldn’t be away from it for more than two nights.