Darling degraded

My RFDS plane discharges me onto the edge of the strip at Wilcannia on its way to Ivanoe. At 9.00am the heat rises to greet me.

A ute sits on the verge. A not-young man says, get in.

I do that.

The man starts the motor and accelerates along a too-narrow, not too smooth dirt track that runs parallel to the field. Grasses grow long between the wheel tracks. We take a right-angle bend at speed, then hurtle along a second margin. In this way we follow a grass and dirt track along all eight sides (yes, eight; don’t ask, it’s complicated) of the airfield.

I ask why?

Checking for ‘roos.

I realise the aircraft has not taken off.

They wait until I give them the all-clear: no ‘roos.

One kangaroo can destroy an aircraft either taking off or landing.

I ask: does your drive-by scare the ‘roos away. (It certainly scared me at first. Presently I realised the man and the vehicle know that track well. Both handle it well.)

Yep. When I arrive the ‘roos leave.

We stop where we started, and the man commences the rural ritual of unlock the gate, drive through the gateway, stop, lock the gate behind you.

The man who drives me from the airfield in Wilcannia looks about sixty-five. He’s happy to talknow.

We introduce ourselves – Howard, Mick.

I ask: Have you lived in Wilcannia all your life?

No, just since 1994. Before that we moved around a bit – Biloela, Deniliquin, Narrandera…

Narrandera! I grew up just near there, in Leeton.

Really? We sent our boys to school in Yanco.

The Ag?

Yeah. 

My oldest friend went to school at the Ag.

Big smiles, a slow silence as we contemplate the Ag, as Yanco Agricultural College is known.

We exchange pleasurable recollections of the area.

What do you do in Wilcannia?

We farmed here. We ran sheep and cattle. Sold most of the property and shifted into town. 

Did you do any cropping?

Opportunistic cropping, yeah.

You mean when there’s rain?

When the river flooded. Doesn’t flood any more…

The Darling?

Yeah. It’s flowing, just trickling really.

Can you catch fish in the water you’ve got?

Yeah! Yellow Perch, Murray Cod!

Those wonderful eating fish of my pre-carp childhood. An enthusiasm shared.

The man has pleasing features. His face creases readily into smiles that engage his eyes, his forehead, every suntanned wrinkle.

When he speaks of the river he looks sad. When he speaks of his Darling you want to throw your arms around him to comfort him.

What’s the cause of the Darling’s problems?

Overuse of water. Cotton farmers over-using water. It’s cheap. Some of them steal water. It’stragic.

What is it from a farmer’s perspective that’s tragic?

All that water brings up the salt in the soil. It ruins the soil. Everywhere, everywhere in the world where they’ve farmed cotton they’ve turned farmland into wasteland.

The Mississippi Delta is ruined. Former cotton country in Russia, ruined. Here it’s just greed. There’s so much money in cotton, soooo much…

You know, we are the food bowl of the world. We’re destroying it….the Murray Darling.

I ponder the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. When I returned to there after decades of absence I was shocked to see the miserable river flow, orchards at Wamoon that flourished when my parents’ friends farmed them, turned to salt.

The farmer resumes, shaking his head: It’s just greed.

What about rice? That uses lots of water, doesn’t it?

Yeah, but rice is a staple!

He sees no moral equivalence. Rice is food, cotton is greed: There’s so much money, so much…

The farmer’s voice breathes ‘greed’ and ‘soooomuch’ in tones of baffled wonder. The former lies outside his moral universe, the latter beyond the scope of his reality.

We arrive at the hospital whose livery he wears. His shirt reads Security but he’s also the hospital rouseabout.

He takes me to the Staff Tea Room. From its verandah you could reach out and touch the great gums. We regard them quietly.

The face smiles again. He glows. We glow together.

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