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Is this really the worst drought on record?


Is this really the worst drought on record?When in September 1892, the editor of the Bulletin, F.H. Archibald, gave Henry Lawson £5 and a rail ticket to Bourke, what neither of them bargained on was that Lawson would arrive in Bourke in the middle of the worst drought in living memory.

Perhaps every drought, once it really grips hard, is 'the worst'. Lawson’s mother, Louisa, had walked off their selection a decade earlier after the third successive year of drought defeated her. In that same year, 1883, Lawson’s great literary contemporary, Joseph Furphy, his health and business ruined by the drought, went back to Shepparton where he worked in his brother John’s foundry, and set about writing one of the great classics of Australian literature, Such is Life.

But the drought Lawson encountered when he stepped off the train was 'the worst' anyone had heard of or experienced or knew about and it appalled him. He wrote to his aunt, Emma Brookes, of "the horror" of life in the drought-blasted outback where "men tramp and beg and live like dogs". Nevertheless Archibald’s strategy worked: from Lawson’s five fraught, ghastly months in the far west of New South Wales came some of the greatest stories in our literature, collected in the two series of While The Billy Boils.

Seventy-three years after Lawson gratefully set his "broken boots" on Sydney pavements – it began to rain the day he left! – I arrived in Bourke during, as the locals somberly assured me, the 'worst drought' since the 1890s. The sheep were on the long paddock, dust powdered up from the tracks and 'roly-pollies' bounded along the roads in the hot wind. People were consumed by drought: they talked about it constantly; they broke off in mid-sentence to scan the washed-out blue of the sky; women looked tired and grim; men kicked at the crumbled earth about their boots and squinted into the futile distance, baffled, helpless.

Statisticians of weather can have a shot at telling us where this drought stands in the pantheon of arid disasters. Is this the 'worst drought' in a thousand years, as Mike Rann is said to have claimed? Who knows?

But recently I flew from Melbourne to Adelaide and, contrary to my usual policy, which is to get an aisle seat – because quite often you see nothing but cloud from the window and clambering over other passengers to get to the toilet is embarrassing, bruising and undignified – I used the personal check-in computer to give myself a window seat. The skies were flawless, the morning as bright and clear as when mornings were first made – probably – and I had carefully avoided the wing. The world lay at the mercy of my curious gaze.

Is this really the worst drought on record?On our left, the First Officer assured us over the PA, we would see the city of Ballarat as we climbed to our cruising altitude and, sure enough, there it was: a sprawl of hot, glinting roofs, a glassy, mirage-buckled CBD and a surrounding plain of earth that looked like it had been blow-torched. And that was the scene all the way west. Very occasionally, a small green patch where someone’s bore was still producing (probably very salty) water, but overall, kilometres of scorch and armour-plate and the long, grey bones of roads straining across the emptiness and the dams and water courses like congealed white splotches on a palette.

And then, the saddest sight of all in this 'worst drought' ever: the Coorong, one of my favourite places, shrinking and writhing between its dunes all the way to the dwindled Murray.

When you think about it, drought pierces so straight to our hearts – from the suburban gardener bucketing water on the tomatoes to the farmer selling off stock or watching them drop – that we need more than a government to deal with it. Government members, with the egos and ambitions that have driven them to their positions, are not inclined to think of the natural world as a colossus of mystery and power dwarfing them and their machinations. Those who do portray nature in this way – like Tim Flannery, for instance – have to be ridiculed or silenced.

There is a kind of moral dimension to drought – its purging, lacerating insistence, its longevity, so different from the unheeding high drama of storm or flood or fire – that turns it into a cultural as much as a meteorological event. Drought sticks around. People settle into it, however reluctantly. It suffuses their life texture.

Those who contend that we live in an 'economy' – people whose basic attitude to culture, any dimension of culture, is philistine – will never allow drought that force, even dignity, and so will never really understand drought’s slow, resistless message that human life is tragedy as well as conquest, a confrontation with the depths as well as an aspiration towards the light.



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Existing comments

Lovely work as usual, Brian.

Aurora Lowe | 20 March 2007  

Wonderful piece and like Tim Flannery you remind us that Nature is "all out there", behind us and ahead and awesome; and we just had 31mls at Coffin Bay!

Bernadette | 23 March 2007  

We used this article as a reflection in our regular Executive Meeting and we enjoyed it very much. Our thanks to Brian MAtthews and Eureka Street for this article

Johanna Snelleman | 02 April 2007  

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