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The road to the far horizon, the way to the nation’s heart

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The town in which you live on the fringe of the city has long receded into the distance, the familiar markers have vanished hours ago. When you look in the rearview mirror the view is the same as that which is before you.
You are across the border, driving north and the horizon has opened up not just in front of you, but to the sides and behind. You are encircled by the same horizon. Each way you look, it is the same. This you think cannot happen. Yet you know it is not a trick of the light or the land. You think you are getting nearer to the horizon, but it does not feel that way. Moving at speed, it feels like everything is standing still. There is no break in the line of sight. You find yourself not so much adrift but looking for bearings where there are none. There is the road in front of you and behind.
You think to yourself, I’m in the middle of nowhere. Of course, only someone passing through would think that. You pass signs to places you’ve never heard of, that you know you will never go to. Places such as Maude, Booligal, Mossgiel. You are going to your brother-in-law’s birthday party. It’s a surprise.

It is out here, on the edge of the outback, that both the reality and the myth of national identity finds part of its foundation.

You’ve crossed from Victoria into NSW, gone through Echuca, in all its bustledom, crossed the Murray and now you’re heading to Deniliquin (elevation 93 metres) and then onto to Hay (elevation 93 metres). From there it will be another 200 kilometres to the former grand sheep station Willandra, which forms a crucial part in my wife’s family history. Her grandfather worked there, met the woman to be his wife and married her there. A picture of them still hangs on a homestead wall. In another room, hangs pictures of two magnificent sheep, Caesar and Brigadier, their fleece a vision splendid. The station is mentioned in the bush song Flash Jack from Gundagai:
I’ve shore at Burrabogie and I’ve shore at Toganmain,
I’ve shore at big Willandra and out on the Coleraine,
But before the shearing was over I wished I was back again
Shearin’ for old Tom Patterson, on the One-Tree Plain.
My wife’s grandfather rode his horse 120 kilometres from there to the One Tree pub to celebrate his 21st birthday. Part of her family’s identity is wrapped up in this place. Part of who she and her siblings and her parents were and are have their beginning and essence here. To us now, it seems the middle of nowhere. To them, it was the centre of their life.
After Deniliquin, the land flattens out, interrupted by saltbush gripping to the red-yellow dirt. Here and there are the gnarled arms and hands of trees. Their bark is like weathered leather, their branches more death than life. And here and there you drive past channels, creeks and sometimes, almost as a cosmic joke, beds that are named as rivers. The land is in drought, as it has been in the past, as it will be in the future. In a column in the Lachlan Advertiser in 1911, among the obituaries, shearing news and the busy work of the local police, there is one final sentence. 
“Rain is needed.”
Here and there, emus can be seen, a mob of roos, a couple of eagles enjoying a carcass. As the light begins to fade, and the sky changes from blue into gold and then grey, a disorientation takes over. The horizon blurs into the air. If it were summer, there would be a shimmering, as if you were driving in water, but in winter it is more a commingling of subtleties. Less fire, more ice. You could be anywhere. 
And everywhere there is the movement of ghosts. In vast distance, communities lived, prospered and died. This is the land of hard yakka, of survival, of living and dying and working with and against the elements. 
Joseph Furphy, who wrote the Australian classic Such is Life under the non-de-plume Tom Collins, said of this country: “The dark boundary of the scrub country disappears northward in the glassy haze, and in front, southward, the level black-soil plains of Riverina proper mark a straight sky-line, broken here and there by a monumental clump or pine-ridge. And away beyond the horizon, southward still, the geodesic curve carries that monotony across the zone of salt-bush, myall and swamp box.”      
It is out here, on the edge of the outback, that both the reality and the myth of national identity finds part of its foundation.

A nation is the continual process of becoming. If it is mature enough it carries with it all that is ennobling.

Paul Daley, reviewing Don Watson’s book The Bush, in The Monthly, wrote:
“Mostly, though, The Bush is a challenge to Australians who’ve long favoured city life on the coastal plains over life in the towns and the emptiness beyond; a challenge to contemplate what it really is about this country that makes us who we think we are.
“Watson’s starting point is that the Australian bush is both real and imaginary: ‘Real, in that it grows in various unmistakable bush-like ways, and dies, rots, burns and grows into the bush again; real in harbouring life. Imaginary in that among the life it harbours is the life of the Australian mind. It is by many accounts the source of the nation’s idea of itself. The bush is everything from a gum tree to any of the creatures that live in it or shelter beneath it, and it is the womb and inspiration of the national character.’ ’’
Few people live in the bush anymore. Towns such as Hay are losing their population. Store fronts on the main street are empty. Where once all roads led in, now they lead out. Of Australia’s 25 million people, more than half live in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
Who then draws from the well of this national character? As political debate in this country has starkly shown, one person’s taste can be a bitter draught. We are at war with ourselves over the exclusive rights of ownership. Identity is culture and culture is identity.
A nation is the continual process of becoming. If it is mature enough it carries with it all that is ennobling. Its markers are plain enough to see for those who are not so blind. It’s merely compassion for all. A kind word and deed, a helping hand. A fair go.
This is the road to the far horizon. This is the way to the centre of the nation’s heart.
Photo by Warwick McFadyen

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One response to “The road to the far horizon, the way to the nation’s heart

  1. As we venture further into the unknowns of this increasingly global sameness, the impracticalities of moulding all peoples and countries into a conveyor of economic output is buckling under it’s own weight of stupidity and ignorance. If we don’t hurry up and revisit the benefits and worth of individualities, their miriad of skills, ideas, cultural differences and the freedom of just being, we’re doomed.

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