On the day that we departed for a mother-daughter road trip into the countryside, the news of yet another distraught and dejected farmer taking his own life peeled back a layer of romanticism. It might seem that it set a sombre tone for our trip, but rather I took it on board as a prompt to ask questions and raise my ears to the cracks that creak in the tough life of an Australian farmer.
The biggest motivation for our trip was to explore the Monaro Plains and retrace my childhood steps through the Snowy Mountains, carrying with me the keen desire to record it via my more perceptive adult heart and eyes. While I found the photogenic beauty I was seeking, I also found a reinvigorated desire to support our Australian food producers, and the importance of keeping a local food industry alive. I felt a greater appreciation for the farmers who face challenges each day, silently struggling while we city dwellers can sometimes be unaware. But as always, we found the fighting but generous Aussie spirit too.
Heading south from Canberra into the Monaro is a delightful sight for those who appreciate a striking, barren landscape. The golden grassy plains are a natural phenomenon – not man-made as some believe – due to the thin soil, cold temperatures and lack of rain, there are few trees that have prospered. As a result of these unique ecosystems, the area is almost entirely dedicated to sheep and cattle farming.
Sheep are sometimes subjected to a ribbing over their group mentality and supposed stupidity. But ever since my friendship with lambs and a gentle ram in Switzerland last year, I have come to stand up for the sheep, arguing that they do indeed have personalities of their own. Here on the Monaro, the sheep and their farmers currently face a battle with a noxious weed called African Lovegrass. It is taking over the nutritious grasslands and the fires used to fight against it are fraught with massive risk themselves. While there are certainly farmers here who are comparatively wealthy, with fences that shield a stately looking home and sprawling land, it would seem to us that the average owner is challenged by issues such as drought, weeds, fire, flaky connections to the market and customers via unreliable internet, prices being pushed down by corporations and production costs rising. Yet many still live up to the stereotype as our willful men and women of the land.
Our first stay in the trip became our most connected to the land, people and animals. Down a dirt road, past abandoned houses and far-stretching power lines, was our farm stay. We spent a few days there, and my mum and I left enamored with the animals, the simple accommodation and the winter fog. On our last morning we sat in the cosy kitchen of our hosts, their elderly dog snuggled into blankets and resting by the fire. She raised her head to receive our affections or to remind her owners that it was time to put on another log! The scene was romantic, but real too, this life of a modern farmer.
Our hosts attended a special event with the Prime Minister the next day; will continue their passionate support of local artists, and tend to their property. Their farm is their labor of love and a continuation of family history, but it is not all fairy lights, long lunches and copious funds. Also under their care is a motley crew that are affectionately, in the way that we know of loving Australian bluntness, referred to as residents of The Special Paddock. For much of the time these animals roamed free, taking food from our hands. I giggled at the comical nature of Stompie the sheep who is the loudest presence of all – she was struck by lightning and amazingly survived but not without permanent damage. Wendy, the caring farmer, had to teach her how to eat again and today she is the bearer of her own special bell around her neck, so that her location is always known to her favorite humans.
Nearby is a chestnut-colored regal former racing horse named Bruce, rescued from bad treatment at the hands of his former owner. He now sojourns here enjoying a peaceful and safe retirement. I cuddled a shining Black Angus steer, Toby, who despite being three years old, is stunted in growth and will forever remain a cute-size cow. A cluster of more woolly sheep and an adorable pair of alpacas, one black and one cream, complete the group. Dave and Mabel. Together they break your heart quietly – Dave sports a white spot on his otherwise dark lips, making him look like he is adorably buck-toothed; both are knock-kneed, a sign of the malnutrition they were subjected to as crias on a different farm.
From beneath the crack in my heart burst forth an overwhelming sense of hope. These animals are only alive for the dedication and selflessness of two special people, of two farmers who do it tough themselves and still have plenty to share – that is what our journey to the Monaro showed me. Beneath the veil of romanticism there is still much grace and attraction. It is raw and real and resplendent.