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A crash course in climate literacy



In the old days, the balladists and poets recorded fire, flood and drought. Fire was dramatic, swift and very dangerous. In Henry Lawson's 'The Fire at Ross's Farm', the blaze 'leapt across the flowing streams/ And raced o'er pastures broad/ It climbed the trees and lit the boughs/ And through the scrubs it roared. / The bees fell stifled in the smoke/ Or perished in their hives,/ And with the stock the kangaroos/ Went flying for their lives.'

Drought in Australia (Gerald Simmons/Flickr)A flood might be deceptively slower but, gradually, you would sense the edge of menace, the point where welcome rain was turning to grave threat, when, for example, as Henry Kendall put it, quietly 'ruthless waters [spread] From our cornfields to the sea'; or when, as in John O'Brien's 'Said Hanrahan', comic, gloomy pessimism turns relief into serious doubt: 'It pelted, pelted all day long, a-singing at its work,/ Till every heart took up the song way out to Back-o'-Bourke./ And every creek a banker ran, and dams filled overtop./ "We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan, "If this rain doesn't stop." '

The intense and prolonged experience of drought, however, seems to grip the imagination, and its images to persist more intensely even, than bushfire or flood. Such was the case for Lawson who was haunted for years by his encounter with the then worst drought in living memory when he 'humped his bluey' around Bourke and Hungerford in 1892.

Writing to his aunt Emma Brooks in January of that year he described '... this God-forgotten town ... You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here. Men tramp and beg and live like dogs.'

His contemporary, Barcroft Boake, saw the horrors even more clearly: 'Where brown Summer and Death have mated/ That's where the dead men lie!/Loving with fiery lust unsated/That's where the dead men lie!/Out where the grinning skulls bleach whitely/Under the saltbush sparkling brightly/Out where the wild dogs chorus nightly/That's where the dead men lie!'

In On the Wool Track, C. E. W. Bean likewise reveals the graphic and unforgettable intensity with which a vast outback drought could impress itself on the sensitive observer. 'The grass had long since disappeared; the face of the country was shifting red and grey sand, blowing about wherever the wind carried it. The fences were covered; dead sheep and fallen trees had become sand-hills. Millions of trees were killed; birds had been dropping dead ... Some men's nerves had broken down under the conditions and they had to flee from the back country in fear for their sanity.'

Drought is different from fire and flood — you can't really tell exactly when it begins because a bit of dry weather is not a drought and need not be the herald of a drought. It's only when you look back over the scorched weeks and months that you see when it all really started.


"None of this is news to anyone on the land or to any ordinarily observant city or suburban dweller."


And, unlike the rampaging destruction of fire or flood, drought creeps, infiltrates, sometimes seems little changed day after day, then — for the time being almost imperceptibly — tightens its grip on this or that paddock, unveils the slowly splitting bottom of a never-before-empty dam, marauds the budget with ever-increasing demands for hay ...

But it's not just that drought in general is different — because of its tantalising funereal pace always somehow falsely suggesting it must surely be nearly at an end, its eroding, insidious pressure on landscape and human spirit alike. What is more interesting and more important is that, according to many of the experienced, crisis-hardened men and women on the land to whom I've spoken, this drought is different.

They find it difficult to say just what the difference consists of, just what it is they are feeling or suspecting, but it has something to do with the overall disruption of seasonal events and processes: storms are more violent and more frequent, heat is fiercer, once clearly definable seasons seeming to crowd each other through the climatic year, winter shortening into spring, spring heating up like early summer, seasonal rains becoming deluges, and so on.

None of this is news to anyone on the land or to any ordinarily observant city or suburban dweller, and it is a worldwide phenomenon known to many, and particularly to scientists in certain disciplines, as 'climate change'. It is news apparently to the Coalition, which does not have a policy on climate change.

It is also news to a couple of illiterate, seamlessly tedious clowns and their crepuscular colleagues on Sky after Dark; news, intermittently perhaps, to Pauline Hanson who announced that she had 'never heard of the final solution' so why should something as indeterminate as climate change seriously impinge, and to a diversity of shock jocks, coal lobbyists, professional sceptics, social media trolls, various other senators and garrulous members of the opinionate democracy.

Now there's a gang worth flashing up on the Opera House sails!



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.



Drought image: Gerald Simmons/Flickr

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, drought, Henry Lawson



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Existing comments

Love it! Isn't it a matter of marvel that when the soil cracks in its desiccation as in the photo herewith, the cracks form hexagons around little islands of earth. Took me back to my childhood on the black volcanic drifts of soil piled up on the western side of the Great Dividing Range on the Darling Downs during a drought.

john frawley | 23 October 2018  

Brian, I grew up in the bush. I attended a primary boarding school at Galong N.S.W. where we depended on rainwater collected from the roofs of all the buildings, including the church, which was stored in a 200,000 gallon underground tank .We had a well which gave us "hard water". I remember a year in the 1950's when the Nuns came close to closing the school as we nearly ran out of potable water-A huge storm dumped a deluge, just after Mother Superior announced the decision; so that was cancelled next day (much to our disgust!). I remember the huge flood one year, a massive bush/grassfire which threatened the village another year. We keenly learnt Dorothy Mackellar's " I love a Sunburnt Country" and "John O'Brien" 's . "We all be rooned said Hanrahan " . My dad was from the land. My grandparents lost their farm to the bank in the 1940's drought , so I was a keen observer of the weather as a result - later working in the BOM for a period before teaching geography for many years. I have kept weather records since the 1960's. I can attest that the droughts of today are different, it is hotter now and droughts are more frequent and severe as a result. Storms are more intense, doing a lot of damage to the countryside from extreme runoff. Certainly the seasons have changed, hotter, longer summers , less frosts in winter and here in Canberra less rain in the cool season, but intense thunderstorms in summer. I have no doubt that human induced climate change is the culprit ! I really am concerned for the future of my grandchildren.

Gavin O'Brien | 24 October 2018  

What happened to Global Warming ?

Philip H. Lindsay | 25 March 2021  

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