You Can't Argue with Paper

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An old one reworked for the Australiana collection.

An anecdotal story about desert creep and big farming practices.

Submitted: June 30, 2020

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Submitted: June 30, 2020

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It was up near the Barwon, ‘round March, on a huge sprawling cattle run in the dead centre of a drought. “Collymongle”, the largest station in all of New South, or so they said. They were turning a pasture of semi-desert scrub and mulga into cotton plains on the orders of the grey suited “farmer” owners from down Pitt Street way and Mick needed the cash.

The investment farmers were counting on the much talked about dam just finished in Armidale to supply the irrigation but, like most grey suited farmers, they hadn’t thought about the vagaries of bush weather. It had worked out on paper and there seemed no reason it wouldn’t work “out there”. Hell, if the dam did not fill this year, it would the next. If not then, well, the year after that and so on. You’d be a fool to try and argue with paper.

Mick spent about six weeks up there before the dust and the uselessness of it all got to him. Climbed down from his scarred yellow ‘dozer in the middle of a Saturday night shift and went back to camp to pack his things. Six weeks of hundred and ten degree days and fair freezing nights, spitting dust and the diesel motor roaring like a fly trapped in his ear. God’s Country.

If it wasn’t too busy and Mick wasn’t on night shift (night shift could bore a monk into swearing), he used to lean back in the tattered vinyl seat of his D8 and watch the kestrels teach their young how to grub for food. Great mobs of those shiny brown predators would come around any time new ground was being ripped into arable fields, looking for the frogs and lizards the machines would turn over with the soil.

The adult birds hovered and scanned for prey, hanging still as pictures in the widest, bluest sky. The young ‘uns would cluster on the stubbly ground with mum keeping an eye on them and peering up at the old man in the sky. Watch him trance-like until he would find his mark and drop like a bullet. Then there would be dancing and hopping as they scurried over to scratch and search the soil, just like dad. Mick doubted if even the tiniest bug escaped those bird’s eyes.

Every now and then the crew would have to clean away the scraggly trees that had already been felled, piling them up in neat heaps with the fork blade of the ‘dozers, scraping and pushing it all in a huge plume of dirt.  Then they’d leave them for a while, wait for the little sap the gnarled wood retained to dry and the leaves to brown before you could torch them.

The camp had a special bloke for that, some fifty year old wino roustabout too useless for any other job but a friend of the boss or a friend of a friend. Anyway, day after day he’d wander around checking the heaps to see if they were dry enough, carrying a half full can of diesel at the ready just in case. If the conditions were right, there would be another bonfire to guide the boys on the night shift.

Never did take long for those trees to dry, if you could call those twisted stumpy aberrations trees. It was hard weather out there alright – some said those scrawny six foot trees would have been there when Cook sailed into Jackson. Mick reckoned it would be a while before they’d grow again.

Whenever it was needed, an old battered truck with a caged tray would go out and bring back a load of aborigines from the local reservation or Collarenebri or somewhere. The problem with the machines was that although they made short work of the big stuff, when it came down to the fidgety jobs like clearing away bits of broken twigs and small stones, they weren’t worth a hoot.

So they would bring the natives in to do the job, which Mick supposed was supporting the locals in some way – well, the publican at least. From his ‘dozer seat, Mick could see the dusty figures in the far paddocks, looking like an olden day chain gang, the lubra’s and gins and piccaninnies and the old fellas with sun bleached hair. All slaving away for two dollars an hour in a roaring heat without a tree or a bit of shade for 40 acres. Mick had done a bit of it himself, up in Queensland but for six dollars an hour, not two and it hadn’t been the best job in the world.

Talking about those bits of paper and all that working out in the barracks after dinner, it was reckoned that those Pitt Street Gentlemen had computed five years of cotton growing (if the dam ever filled) would just about deplete the little soil there was out there on the desert edge. But five years would repay the initial outlay with a tidy sum left over.

It was expensive to fertilize and the soil only gets addicted so you have to spend more and more until it just wasn’t worth it and they would move on. Mick never knew if this was the gospel truth but could not stop thinking about those trees that were around when Cook sailed into Jackson.

So, after six weeks Mick quit, on a broken shift on a lonely Saturday night. He took off for Lightning Ridge and waited around until Thursday when they could cut his check. They docked him a weeks pay for leaving without notice but that seemed ok at the time. Adding it all up, he had saved close on a thousand dollars in the month and a half out there. Mick had never pretended to be a saint.

He called into Nimbin on the way back to Sydney and spent around half on the local rarities there. When he got back to Sydney, he just partied for a while but never talked much about what he had been doing or where he had been. If anyone asked, it was just “driving dozers out west”. 

On a phone call sometime later he heard that the dam still hadn’t filled and it looked like it was still going to be sometime before it did. They were still working the farm as the Pitt Street farmers were optimistic. You just couldn’t argue with paper.


© Copyright 2020 Paul R. All rights reserved.

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