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Bush tales

David is making mud bricks. A small, young wallaby watches him from less than five metres away.

‘Me little mate’, David explains. ‘Comes here to graze that patch of green next to the shed every time I’m making bricks. He looks up now and then to check on me, make sure I’m not bludgin’, I suppose.’

David is lean and weather-beaten. He looks like Clint Eastwood. Beneath a sinister black Akubra, his high cheekbones shadowing a slight concavity on either side of the face combine with narrowed eyes and a stubbly jaw to give him that brooding, dramatic air that allows Clint to get away with so little dialogue. David likewise is a man of few words but when he uses them, they count. He smiles often, however, and has a sharp, saturnine wit. When David graduated as an industrial chemist, he took to coal mining in direct defiance of his father’s wishes, but years later he decided to live by his wits. A talented builder, furniture maker and a bushman with vast natural know how, he was soon in demand round the district. Three days a week he works here, for Bob and Sally at Long Gully—a paradisal slash of beautiful bush meandering gently uphill between two craggy escarpments, the Elephant and the Lion. ‘Best office there is’, David’s phrase, as he ‘takes a look around’ deep in the forest.

And then there’s Mike, a near neighbour. Conservationist, gardener, horticulturist, timber expert, builder—especially of circular mud-brick structures, in one of which he lives with his wife—Mike wears shorts, usually bright and noticeable, a singlet often red, and socks of many colours. Freezing or wet weather has no effect on this choice of ensemble. Nor, by and large, does formality. Mike turns up to dinner parties and other gatherings in his shorts and, while he might start off with a shirt or sweater covering the singlet, it usually comes off after an hour or so of talk and bonhomie. Sally assures us that he has a special black singlet—for weddings. He always wears sturdy boots over each of which is a sort of gaiter, elasticised at the top, to prevent sand and other bits and pieces invading his feet. Very understandable out in the bush, less so at indoor gatherings, but he wears them then anyway.
Mike is a true environmentalist, which means that while nature benefits from his care and consideration, human beings, delinquent or shallow in their relationship with the cosmos provoke in him a venom surprising in such an essentially amiable and easy-going bloke. When someone over morning tea one day referred to the late Jim Bacon with sadness and affection, Mike snorted, ‘Tree killer’. The ensuing awkward silence bounced right off Mike who, gazing around and running a hand through his Harpo Marx coiffure, said, ‘Wattles’re late this year’.

Bill drops in now and then for a yarn or a meal or to do a job. When Bob and Sally were planning their house warming party, Bill made them a bush fridge—a 44-gallon-drum with the top cut off and alternate layers of bottles and ice all the way down. When Bob was cleaning up the next day, the surviving bottles on the bottom were half frozen. Bill lives on a property the other side of Elephant Mountain. He says it’s ‘a two stubby trip’ to get to Bob and Sally’s mud-brick, gracious Australian bush house, built by Mike, David and Bob, at the top of Long Gully, and he usually arrives clutching an empty and pocketing his stubby holder as if returning a gun to its holster.

The gully used to be part of Bill’s family’s land and years ago Bill’s mother decided to burn off an infestation of blackberries. Creating a whooshing firestorm along the hillside she scorch-earthed blackberries practically through to the next county, but in the process also took out the family ute, whose tyres exploded into flame followed by the crackle of the bullets Bill had left in their packet on the front seat. When Bob bought the land, he wanted to clear off the blackened wreck but Bill and Mike persuaded him it was a monument from Long Gully’s past and so it sits there still, threaded and looped with blackberries.

Not that the blackberries have won in Long Gully. ‘Blackberry Dave’ sees to that. ‘Blackberry Dave’ first encountered me on my early morning run along the track to the gate. 

‘G’day’, Dave said, through the open ute window. Then, with a long, eloquent look at my baggy red running shorts which are actually swimming togs, blue socks and improvised, flapping black top (well, I hadn’t actually expected to go running), he said, ‘That explains it. I was wonderin’ what had scared all the roos and wallabies. Runnin’ mad everywhere this morning they are. See you, mate’.

These are just some of the people who come and go on Bob and Sally’s Long Gully. This is Lawson country in the 21st century. Like Lawson’s imaginative world, it has memorable characters, it is tough on human aspirations, it is beautiful, yet faceless if you get lost in it. But it is more loved and so more smiling somehow, better understood and valued than that hard-bitten, pocked and gloomy terrain on which
Lawson’s characters played out their lives of quiet desperation, always on the edge.                  

Brian Matthews is a distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University.



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