How Much Rain Did You Get?

Lesley Nixon shares something of her Upper Hunter life.

Life here is not so much difficult, as different.

Our property is eight kilometres from Merriwa, a town of about a thousand residents, some two hours’ drive from a “big” town - Dubbo, Tamworth, Maitland or Newcastle. 

Life on the land is unpredictable and full-time. We are more carers than owners, on call for emergencies (“disasters”) any day or night. A vital fence broken must be fixed; a heifer “in trouble” calving must be tended to; a bent gate must be forced shut (lay it on the ground and run it flat with the truck); stock must have water (“cows have broken the float valve again”); fires must be contained (“just going outside to check for smoke” - every day); family, friends and neighbours must be helped. At other times, life proceeds at the pace of a new-born calf’s walk, or the season changing, or a farmer making plans. You plan for centuries when caring for the land. You start projects which may not mature in your lifetime. You are paid two or three times a year. You step back and take time together when you can, knowing there may be no leisure in the next week − or months, if something goes wrong. The whole family is affected, all plans and expectations have to be adaptable to sudden change. Safety is a constant consideration. It’s a good training ground for life skills, if only you can last the distance.

The Weather is in control. It can stop any project; change any plan; prevent your leaving home or strand you “up the paddock”; cause anxiety, heartbreak and death − yet bring life, joy and beauty to the world. 

I moved here from Port Stephens 18 years ago when I married Martin (who moved from his childhood bedroom to the one next door). My childhood was in the suburbs, with beach, boats and Lake Macquarie. I attended the University of Newcastle and worked in the Lower Hunter. My grandparents all came to Australia (on boats!) from Northumberland or Wales, and rebuilt their lives in the Hunter Valley coalfields.

Martin had been to school in Sydney, university in Armidale and in the UK, worked in Canada, then served on Merriwa Shire Council, managing the farm as his father grew older. The Nixons put down roots here in the 1850s, with a land grant in the mountains behind Cassilis (“22 gates, 16 miles of black soil and 16 miles of gravel to get to town”) and later, nearer Merriwa.

I was told “even the fenceposts grow at Merriwa” when I moved onto 823 hectares of fertile, gentle, black soil country, formed from Warrumbungle basalt lava flows. In the nearby Sydney Sandstone basin the soil turns light brown and ironbark trees take over from grey box and kurrajongs. Our horizons are the distant sandstone cliffs lining the Goulburn River valley, forested hills above Broke and Pokolbin and a line of afternoon cumulus clouds sitting above the invisible ocean. We breed Angus cattle for the local and export markets, with about 270 cows and their calves and a rotating population of about nine bulls; “the boys”. They like showing off and are very accident-prone.

We are two kilometres from our nearest neighbour. At night everything disappears except for the moon and stars. Taking in washing from the clothesline is problematic − could something be hiding in the dark? Our daughters would sing the “Bob the Builder” theme continually, as a distraction. Sometimes we run short of water and must restrict washing and shower times. During electricity failures we have no drinking water at all because the pump stops. Some weekends we have advance notice of scheduled blackouts of six hours for maintenance of the network. These make accidental blackouts far less common but we still fill a hot thermos and water jugs if a storm is approaching.

I love the wildlife. This summer the heavy, rushing sound of wings at night was a family of fruit bats coming to feed and throw eucalypt twigs and blossoms onto the ground. Bats are often here at dusk, flicking by in the corner of your eye, microbats smaller than a sparrow and more delicate than a mouse. I know this because a friend found one sleeping in the freshly washed sheets one morning. A tiny bat once flew through our living room. A few minutes of hesitation and sidelong glances; “Did you see that? Good. So did I.” 

A one-metre tall wedgetail eagle landed near the house and ate our hand-raised fluffy white silky bantam rooster. We picked up every feather and fragment before the girls came home from school. A wombat has ploughed through the house fence. Echidnas burrow and hibernate near the hot water service, upsetting the dogs. A starving kangaroo moved in to the garden (the ‘house yard’ of two acres), sharing the heat-stressed calves’ feed and water, and sleeping under the fruit trees. His front paws were bigger than my hands and he was two metres tall. We (especially the children and the dogs) treated him with great respect as he rested and gained weight. He moved on when the rains came.

A (relatively) tidy lawn and garden is essential protection from summer grass fires. We all know how to use a fire-hose, and where to meet up “if the house goes”. Rabbits have helped renovate a cottage by undermining the concrete floor of the entire bathroom and laundry. I rarely see a snake but always make noise and check where I walk - the snakes don’t seem to like the goanna that visits regularly for fresh eggs. Once a black snake coiled around the porcelain toilet in a guest cottage. I called a snake handler who said, “Yeah, he’ll really like it there, nice and cool.”

Everything is changing so rapidly and we adapt to survive. Merriwa Shire was (involuntarily) amalgamated with Scone and we still have no household garbage collection service. Our Federal electorate is changing. Our long serving State member has retired. We use internet banking instead of delivering cheques, missing the news update while walking around town. I no longer drive to town to park on a hill to retrieve my phone messages. The NBN has come to Merriwa − but not to our farm. Our wireless internet is too slow and too expensive for ‘streaming’, but better than dial-up services (or no service). The banks have closed but the credit union has expanded. The post is still slow, but email, skype, text and smartphones keep people in touch. Television and some radio are received via satellite but vital weather and market information are all online. Our beloved kelpie has arthritis and sleeps most of the day, but is still Boss of the younger dogs. The stars compete with the light of coal mines 25km away. In town, cowboy hats, jeans and riding boots persist, beside ‘hi-vis’ shirts. The younger generation is running family businesses but the old guard still helps out. The Sisters of St Joseph have left our convent but St Joseph’s Primary continues. The congregation at St Anne’s is smaller, and older, but people still linger and talk outside on summer evenings. Friends can go for espresso and toast at the bakery after morning Mass. Especially if it has rained.

“How much rain did you get?”

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