The daily experience of tending a tract of land in the south-east of South Australia is the raw material of artist–farmer James Darling. The land which comprises Duck Island is watercourse country where sand, water, salt and native vegetation are the elements from which, over decades of passionate attention, he and his partner Lesley Forwood have developed a farm which includes a special salt-tolerant grass for their cattle. His exhibition, Define the Country at Riddoch Art Gallery in Mount Gambier is a response to this farmed landscape.
Ministry of Clouds (The Storms of December 1992)
Another unlikely cool grey day, a shower or two, amounting to nothing. A familiar pattern to this entirely unfamiliar summer. Heat, December, it’s always on the cards. “Don’t worry about the hot weather, it’ll come.” And it always has. Nothing surer. But not this year.
1990 and 1991 had been characterised by late breaks, after the beginning of June, later, then instant soaking, saturation, followed by three months of rain, peak floods, then nothing. This year the farmers have been praising the rain in spring. At last, a moderately early break, no soaking rains, but enough, scraping by, but then spring, a real spring. But it has turned into a season whose prolonged wet hasn’t ended. With that, everything changed – and so did Duck Island’s selling ability. But the rains haven’t stopped. Eight days with rain in December so far, 50 mm, 2 inches, more. And mostly gentle rain at that. No deluge.
Our 90 hectares of lupins at Naberoo still look OK to me. (It is more than 10 years since I grew lupins and the prevalent varieties have all changed.)
In many areas of the state there have been floods, hailstorms, freak wind storms, huge rainfall, aggregate rainfall as well as the single monumental downpour that just uploads. The skies have been stacked with the greatest assortment of clouds, of light and dark, of clear white skyscrapers in sunlight, and gunboat grey, the nationalities of the skies all at sea. And you wonder how by chance this world is. To sail through the minefield, prospering – while the maimed are your own kind around you, near and far.
It gets to you. The rollcall reeling from one bit of bad news to the next. Fundamental bits. You think you know the worst but you don’t. There is always another turn of the screw. And even that’s alright. No, not all right, no, except that you pretend you’re used to it, that you can cope ... that’s the worst of it. When suddenly everything runs out and there’s panic. So much to do that nothing gets done. It builds up. Fair game. Afloat, at sea, drifting in a hurricane, the dark and unfamiliar landscape of an internal sea.
The lucky get advice which helps. The luckless dig for their resources, must quit or keep going. Not much of a choice. Some quit and find it strangely, unpredictably easy, as if a burden has been lifted imperceptibly off their shoulders. But the others must go on. And their children must live with it too. Or die with it, as so many have, alone and reasonably shattered. In the end, there must be courage, and intelligence, and sensitivity and devotion to the range of the task. Especially as a parent. As if it is only an act of the imagination which can free us.
Fire and roots
Between the lilt of your voice and the flash of an eye, an idea, air-seeded.
“Big art” Daniel called the exhibition just before finishing his speech. “I declare James Darling open.” What did he mean “Big Art”? It sounded like capital letters. From poetry it ought to be, stating the obvious, rippling out, immediately rewarding on the surface, but resonant with levels of meaning, requiring thought to see, to find the point.
Take Fire and Roots as an example: a straight-sided wall made solely from mallee roots, 3 metres in length, a metre wide and more than 2 metres tall with a TV set, at adult viewing height, built into the structure. The video presented an hour of images from early clearing times at Duck Island, focusing on mallee rooting and burning. But the fires of the film are not only the fires of yesterday, they are the fires of tomorrow – only worse. They are a warning, provocative with fearful images.
At the base of those images from years ago is a military precision: firebreaks, planning, attention to detail, and most importantly, choosing the right day for the job. In stark contrast to controlled burning is the split-second of a lightening strike, the instant ambush of a scrubfire, untidy and random on all fronts – most commonly hissing, spitting, crackling, blazing away on days of acute wind and heat.
Only once in the many different areas of burning on Duck Island did a fire look like getting away from us. Being next to the Duck Island Area itself, our most important heritage and conservation area, it was one of the rare locations where we didn’t have burnt ground to burn into. Flames got across a break in very spiny, ridge-backed country. Bill and I managed to keep the 600-gallon fire tanker from overturning and put it out before the flames became totally unmanageable. Not a good time.
Now the legalistic, messianic myopia of the Native Vegetation Council and the Department of Environment and Planning permits no more than a 5-metre firebreak and an adjoining 5-metre fuel reduction zone. I cannot believe the devastation which will be Duck Island, the red gum watercourse cathedral of the Duck Island Area especially, which in the roulette of nature, is bound to happen.
Viewers can watch 60, 80 feet of flame, between two, three feet tall green vegetation, the ti-tree, the melaleuca halmaturorum of the watercourse flats.
Seen. But will it be seen? Understood.
And without propaganda, art by the obvious, ends in the art of the silence, a theatre of lost moments.
What the poet meant.
The 5.5-metre long image was scanned and printed by computer from three photographs taken by the very everyday camera, a Pentax 105R. It depicts a precise moment in the annual cycle of an efficient breeding herd in the 24-hour, 356-days-in-the-year, clockwork factory which amongst other things is a farm. The 173 tags belong to the 173 cows in the image. The animals move individually and as a collective herd across the dry summer ground.
Weaning, the time when calves are first separated from their mothers, entails a period in the yards (the calves are weighed), much bellowing, udders growing full, and then driving cows and calves to secure paddocks with erosion-proof fence lines as far away as possible from each other. The fact that very few animals are turning round or protesting suggests that the paddock, with its horizons of native vegetation, is a long way from the yards and the cattle temporarily resign themselves to the situation and head for the immediate satisfaction of the trough.
Once watered and fed, the cows will begin bellowing for their calves, a cacophany will break out, the pounding of fence lines, and you hope for a day of high wind to carry off the sound as innocuously as possible. But the Weaned Cows image is also very definitely about the long, flat, horizontal line between the bleached blond puccinella grass and the deep green of the scrub. It speaks of the floods of the watercourse, of sustainable management practices involving saltland agronomy and conserving bush side by side, and opens a Pandora’s box of agricultural, environmental and political issues.
Duck Island, recognised in agricultural circles for its saltland farm management, has harvested pulcinella grass seed for more than a decade. Pulcinella, of necessity, featured prominently in Define the Country. Pulcinella is just what is needed for the increasing critical saline areas in Australia and has huge export potential.
“Shit grass”? “That’s just for shit country” said a regional seed merchant the other day, not knowing who he was talking to.
A minimum management, perennial grass, comparatively unknown and decidedly undervalued, it is the most salt-tolerant and productive plant available to farmers with saline areas. It is high in protein, very palatable, insect-free, can prosper in water for three months and more, responds to small doses of fertilizer, self-seeds and is resilient and persistent. It is a vital component of Duck Island's land management system 2.3% protein when green, approximately 9% when dry in late summer and early autumn, it acts as a cover to keep the watertable and the salt down during the summer months and then as quality feed in the autumn after calving.