by George Main
© all rights reserved
From a stony hillside, under the dense shade of an old kurrajong tree, I gaze towards blue ranges defining the horizon. Australians are familiar with images of rural vistas like the one extending before me. Where the slope levels, homestead chimneys and a corrugated iron roof rise from a wide garden. Ewes and lambs graze ryegrass and clover beside tall eucalypts. Several willow trees stand on the bank of a creek, near shearers’ quarters and a voluminous woolshed. A steel fence passes a weatherboard cottage and a muddy dam. Sheep tracks weave outwards from a cement water trough, across a paddock threadbare with loose stubble.
The remains of a racehorse once nourished the elderly kurrajong now shading me. ‘Featherstitch 1905-23’, a marble headstone reads beside the tree. My father’s grandfather bred racehorses here on Retreat, a property between Cootamundra and Temora, on the southwest slopes of New South Wales. Horses grazed these hillsides long before my family came. Pinchgut Creek curves through paddocks below, past old eucalypts towards the Murrumbidgee River. In the early decades of colonisation, horses escaping riverside squatting runs retreated to distant hills. Great mobs of wild horses alongside Pinchgut Creek gave Retreat its name. A long-time resident of the Temora district remembered Mimosa station, west of Retreat, ‘infested with wild horses and kangaroos’ in the 1870s.2 About the same time, men trapped and killed in one year 1200 horses on Berthong station, northeast of Retreat.3
My grandfather told my father why a paddock on Retreat was named ‘Trapyards’. Years ago there, station workers corralled mobs of wild horses inside a set of yards. The animals trapped, two men stood either side of a narrow gate, each holding a pole with a sharpened blade from a pair of hand shears bound to the end. When the gate opened, the men slashed the bellies of the horses as they rushed to exit. The frightened animals galloped away to die slowly among white cypress pines and yellow box trees. Graziers across the region considered mobs of wild horses a demonic barrier to pastoral development, Mary Gilmore explained, ‘to be blotted out like the blacks.’4
Several quandong trees, my great aunt remembers, grew in a paddock south of the hillside where I stand. And a pair of bush stone-curlews nested beside a road near the woolshed. The quandongs and curlews vanished decades ago. Southeast from my vantage point, past a dark green paddock of lucerne, I see a tall yellow box, pale limbs dense with leaves, rising above the woolshed and its network of mesh yards. My father taught me to ride a bike there, on red earth compressed by generations of sheep, hooting encouragement as I began to circle the wide, fibrous girth of the elderly eucalypt. Beneath the kurrajong tree, I view the childhood event years later, from a distant position. As in familiar representations of golden rural vistas, particular details remain obscure.
I leave the cool shade of the kurrajong and walk downhill. Over the road in the lucerne paddock, pale green domes of peppercorn trees ripple in the heat. The original Retreat homestead stood somewhere between them, above a swamp and several dams on Pinchgut Creek. Traced in black ink, the swamp appears on Parish of Hurley maps issued by the Department of Lands more than a century ago. Where old maps indicate swampland I find a deep, dry creek channel curving through crop stubble. No swampland plants, no expanse of dark, wet earth. The paddock upstream turns sodden when winters are especially wet. There, east of Retreat homestead, Pinchgut Creek loses definition in a level area studded with rushes. My great aunt remembers walking with her brothers and sisters to school, a small building on the other side of the flat and sometimes swampy paddock. To save her feet soaking when the area was wet, she carefully walked right alongside the fence where the ground was slightly higher. Her parents came to Retreat a century ago and planted an orchard below their new pisé homestead, on the northern edge of the swamp marked on parish maps, into earth deep and moist.
Only the upstream part of the swampland remains today, where aged fruit trees grow. Downstream, in the paddock of crop stubble where the main body of the swamp once lay, I step into the dusty channel of Pinchgut Creek. Several layers, I notice, make up the channel wall. From the paddock surface down is a deep band of light coloured soil washed from surrounding hills. Underneath, lower down the channel wall, runs a dark layer of ancient swamp earth, rich with rotted plant material. The differing soil bands record a history of cultivation, grazing, and drought, of hillsides disturbed and bare. In summer heat, questions rise from Pinchgut Creek. When did heavy storms bury the swampland under loose soil? How long did the channel take to carve through the earthen layers? Years ago someone, perhaps my grandfather, threw old fencing wire, bent steel posts, broken machinery parts, and rusted iron sheets into the eroding head of the channel upstream. But floodwaters proved stronger. Erosion continues today, as Pinchgut Creek channels into the northern remnant of winter swampland, slowly erasing the natural feature.
In the creek bed lies a sheep carcase—rotten skin, bones and wool—in a dry waterhole below the black band of swamp earth. Midday sunlight makes its white skull shine. I climb out, onto the overlay of eroded soil and stubble, the remains of a wheat crop. A willy willy approaches from the southwest, where Pinchgut Creek vanishes behind a slope. The spinning tunnel of dusty air and stubble whispers vigorously through the crowns of yellow box trees. On the other side of the waterway, near where the parish maps say the swamp began, a tall and sturdy red gum stands alone. The tree looks like a river red gum, a species common in watery places, but rare in dry paddocks like this one, beside a minor creek high in the Murrumbidgee basin. I imagine the tree growing to maturity centuries ago, when rushes grew here in damp black earth. Does the ancient organism, I wonder, hold memories of the dead swamp and its people?
Walking away, I stop to examine flakes of stone near the creek bank, tools and workings unearthed by plough blades and the hard hooves of livestock. Some flakes are long and narrow. Others, knocked from white quartz, are short and angular. I admire a large flake, smoky blue with red lines. My finger traces the sharp edge of a blade worked from a smooth, fine-grained stone, pure black. Squatting, close to the earth, I encounter traces of history—stories and particularities invisible from a distance. A call on the present seems to rise from the lost swamp. Paddocks silenced, emptied of history and varied life, are made to grow uniform products for distant markets. In the summer dryness, the wounded place cries out for recognition and response.