The title for this post is taken from the 1950s song Cool Water which was a hit for Frankie Laine. My friends find my knowledge of what they call ‘old music’ to be anachronistic in this day of iTunes and MTV. I grew up listening to a wide variety of music thanks to my father who loved everything from Fats Waller to the Beatles. To say my family’s musical taste is eclectic is probably an understatement.
Cool Water follows the theme of Coleridge’s Rime of The Ancient Mariner, you know – “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” This post is about water, or rather, the lack of it. Much of Australia is in drought, severe drought. The immediate problem caused by lack of water is that crop yields are affected, it costs more to grow our food, therefore, it costs more for us to buy it.
I think about the environment a lot. Those plaintive images of polar bears stranded on floating blocks of ice really get to me. I suppose that’s their purpose. That aspect of climate change is an important one to address, of course, but right now I’m concerned about a climate change issue a little closer to home.
The Australian landscape has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. The only word that truly describes it is dry. We have no water. Long term, how can we survive without sufficient water supplies?
Yellow. Cracked. Brittle. Barren. Dead. Some of our rivers like the Murray are dying. Many people I know who live on the land have to buy their own water at great expense. It throws an already very shaky bottom line into an often perilous situation.
I met a man yesterday, a lovely man, a genuine man. Bob comes from north-western NSW. Until a few months ago he was a farmer. Sheep and wheat. Years of drought caused him to sell his farm after six generations of farming. His mother, who had lost her husband of fifty years six months before, was so grief-stricken at the loss her of her family heritage that she stayed in bed and died.
” She was lonely without my Dad,” said Bob. “Having to sell the farm was the final nail in the coffin. She refused to get out of bed, refused to eat. She literally starved herself to death.” There’s a kind of despair for which no words are adequate, for which no comfort but silence can be offered. Bob’s younger brother committed suicide when he realised that they would sell the farm for less than they needed to clear their debts. Bob had to tell his sister-in-law that her husband was dead. He had to cut his beloved brother down from the rafters of the barn.
Bob came over to my place to cut the small patch of grass in my garden. Alfie isn’t up to mowing the lawn at the moment and I can’t cut it because grass is the worst thing for plunging me into full blown asthma hell. Bob has moved to Sydney with his family.He is receiving rent assistance. He is doing odd jobs while he waits to hear if he has a job with the local council.
Bob is finding it hard at 54 to start again. He is receiving counselling to deal with the loss of his mother and brother, and to come to terms with the guilt he feels for letting the drought take hold as it did. “I saw the signs ten years ago but I ignored them. Like a fool I thought that eventually it would rain.”
Bob is a horticultural whiz. We discuss the trees in my garden – I have a jacaranda, a Japanese maple, an enormous camellia and an even larger melaleuca. Bob thinks they are all drought-stressed. You can tell by the way the leaves grow and from the texture of the bark. He believes that without question, the water table has dropped. It may take years for it to rise again.
I tell Bob how I like sitting in the garden to watch the birds dance in the trees. He finds the city enclosing and oppressive. He is not used to living in such proximity to his neighbours. “I can hear them walking up and down the hallway,” he says. “Sometimes it sounds like they are actually in my house.”
Bob laughs kindly at my idea of a pleasing garden view. From his porch on the farm he could see 10,000 hectares. “We thought it went all the way to the end of the world,” he said. Red-soiled paddocks were fenced to keep out the kangaroos. Brush box trees rose like behemoths, so tall their branches scraped the sky like an artist mixing paint. Gullies were filled with lush scrub where wild mushrooms grew. The wind bent the heads of endless rows of wheat, golden as sunflowers. Sheep grazed, huddled like clouds.
“You don’t appreciate how much space you have at the time,” says Bob. “If we had got everyone in the town – all 4000 of them – to stand hand-in-hand in a line we wouldn’t even have made it a quarter of the way across the property. I knew every inch of that land. Now it’s gone.”
Bob is ashamed that on his watch the farm fell apart. “Everyone knows why it happened. We chopped down all the native trees which are more hardy and drought-resistant than introduced species. We cleared entire suburbs of land. We over-farmed. We managed our water badly. We didn’t pay attention to what was going on.”
The lines on Bob’s face appear etched, riven by something stronger than grief. On the night he left the farm he walked for hours, listening to the ghosts of his ancestors, saying goodbye to all he had ever known. “I have no choice but to go on,” says Bob,” what else can I do?”
I wish I was knowledgeable enough about farming practices and water management to offer a workable solution to the problems farmers are facing. I wish Bob could find an alternative, a palatable one, to the life he has always known. I wish it would rain. Three wishes used up just like that. Three wishes which, if granted, barely touch the extent of the problem. It’s a daunting task, cultivating our most precious resource from which all life springs. I hope that soon we can find the answer.