Book Review: Mallee Country

Book Review: Mallee Country

Mallee Country: Land, People History.

By Richard Broome, Charles Fahey, Andrea Gaynor and Katie Holmes. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing. 2020. Pp.415. $39.95   ISBN 9781925523126

Reviewer Jennifer R McCoy

Mallee Country Cover IMG_9610

Many of us when we think of the Mallee, in our ignorance only think of desolate country in north western Victoria, and of dusts storms, rather than of farming practices and wheat crops. Nor is Mallee country confined to the north-western part of Victoria. The same vegetation straddles the Murray River into southern NSW, and again in southern South Australia; it also occurs in south eastern Western Australia.

The word ‘Mallee’, comes from the Aboriginal word mali, the name of a form of eucalypt that thrives in a climate of hot summers and mild winters, with low rainfall and low-nutrient soils, The authors describe the multiple varieties as ‘frontier members of the eucalypt family’, with an unusual physiology whose root system gives the plant great resilience.

The authors, all respected historians, have taken a broad historic perspective, beyond local and farming histories, to show how this mallee country with its harsh climate shaped ‘the story of human occupation’ from its Aboriginal custodianship through European pastoral runs to crop farming and then to its gradual ‘reinvention’ today. They recognise that the people striving to forge a living from this land, while developing huge resilience and applying great ingenuity, often created problems that still require expensive solutions, at both a personal and government level. Their underlying concern is that despite being one of Australia’s main ecological systems, much of the Mallee has been cleared for agriculture.

The book ranges from Deep Time, covering all human land uses, focusing on dryland farming (not irrigation) to explore the interaction of humans and nature. It builds a brief but evocative story of the creation of these lands, evolving over millions of years, with geological upheavals and climatic extremes. While there is evidence of human occupation over forty-two thousand years ago, the land only became more habitable about four thousand years ago, finally rich in ‘a diversity of indigenous plant life that provided sustenance to a myriad of insects, birds, and animals’.

Those first Aboriginal people now began to shape that land with fire: creating pathways and grazing lands for kangaroos, encouraging food species like yams, managing foliage around water sources, skillfully adapting their lives to that country. Fire was controlled with cool burns at regular intervals, carefully managing the land for sustainable living in a difficult environment. Aboriginal society evolved in the land for two thousand generations, until the arrival of Europeans just six to seven generations back. Now the contact between the two peoples would prove disastrous to the Indigenous – and to the land.

Early European explorers were almost defeated by the land and lack of water; the nature of that land then remained a barrier to white settlement until the demand for fine wool in Britain drove pastoral expansion from the 1840s. The pastoralists story held endless challenges – ‘The mallee scrub, the soils, predators, climate, lack of water and distance to ports’ offered limited opportunities for success; combined too with their own inexperience, leasehold constraints, itinerant work force and inadequate funds. While their sheep destroyed the land with cloven hooves and destroyed plant diversity, rabbits and dingoes added to the assault on the land.

From the beginning too, white invasion and then settlement on Aboriginal homelands so often led to violence; until ‘a two-way paternal relationship’ developed; as the Aboriginal people became their workers, and as Aboriginal lives became controlled by legislation.

The end of pastoralism came in 1879 with the Crown Lands Commission Inquiry into pastoral leases, followed by the Mallee Pastoral Leases Act 1883, which ended land monopoly and returned millions of acres of land to the government for subdivision and closer settlement. The scene was now set for endless costs: to government for financial compensation to pastoralists and then to numerous small farmers following their dream.

It was now expected small land holders would fulfill the ‘agrarian dream’ of civilizing the land, replacing sheep with wheat. But machines that cleared the land efficiently, exposed the soil to wind and created dust storms, continuing the destruction of the land. Nor was thought given to the scarcity of water or to drought. Mice plagues were an unexpected challenge; later locust plagues were met with massive aerial insecticide drops. More expense and more environmental impact.

Government optimism about closer settlement continued though, driving farming expansion in the Mallee, supported with infrastructure and scientific advice. The Empire Settlement Scheme and then The Soldier Settlement Scheme added burdens on the land and on inexperienced settlers now saddled with debt, until the government stepped in with compensation and a royal commission. And still, as settlement extended and more acreage was cleared, dust storms and drought continued.

Railways were built to encourage settlement, giving access to markets and providing water during drought; thousands of kilometres of water channels were constructed to ensure more regular supply; science and technology in the early twentieth century introduced dry-farming practices, which although highly effective for crop production, in the long-term excessive cultivation led to massive wind erosion; the need for heavy superphosphate dressing was advised, adding to costs (and then environmental impacts); and strong recommendations were made for mixed wheat-sheep farming, although farming allotments were inadequate in size; the Better Farming Train, an agricultural demonstration train, linked scientific authority to practical farming methods, but ‘ironically the farming methods promoted by the train had a devastating impact on the Mallee’.

Aboriginal people were still part of this story. Although dispossessed of their lands, they adapted again, camping on available land, working for settlers, their children attending schools.

The mid to late 20th Century saw life and productivity improve for mallee farmers. Governments continued support, and scientists experimented with ways to arrest soil drift, improve seed varieties and destroy rabbits. New machinery too improved efficiencies. By the 1980s public interest in conservation led to the creation of national parks and farmers interested in conservation of flora and fauna. 1983 saw the end of large-scale release of mallee land for agriculture. Gradually the nature of farming has changed and along with it the surrounding communities. Nature reserves now occupy 10-30 per cent of the area, holding the promise for the mallee. Aboriginal people have also survived, and Native Title claims are being negotiated. The new challenges ahead lie in climate change but there is hope in finding solutions through technology and socially driven responses. Hope too lies in building again strong mallee communities possibly around new industries – eucalyptus oil, bees, silo art projects, Aboriginal heritage.

To live and farm in this environment, to survive, these farmers needed ‘resilience, tenacity, forbearance, adaptability’. This is a story that could probably be revealed in many parts of Australia. What makes it unique is the nature of this land, which made it so difficult for humans to survive, demanding so much of them, until the land was subdued. These authors have drawn on early station records, letters, diaries, reminiscences, descendants of Aboriginal people and settlers, to give life to so many of those people; at the same time revealing the enormous impact of their endeavors on themselves and on society up to today.

Ignorance and idealism combined with optimism and government encouragement drove the settler’s efforts. Serious doubts though are raised about government decision-making: ignorance and idealism too in striving to fulfill a vision of a continent populated and developed through closer settlement schemes; inevitably though, each time failing in its achievement.

The evidence presented at every stage is detailed, with brief footnotes which allow readers with a historic interest to follow the research, but without discouraging general readers with complex academic argument. It is a compelling history and immensely readable, the language often evocative, imaginative: in the final blink of time ‘humans and their associates – fire, animals, plants, technology – transformed the entire mallee stage’, and ‘Nature and sheep became entwined as sheep munched their way across mallee country’, on the labour-intensive process of clearing the land ‘The ploughman and his horses were followed by a labourer – or family member – who painstakingly grubbed out, lifted and carted away the roots’.

Its intrinsic value lies in the charting of this story: showing what humans are capable of under the most extreme conditions, demonstrating their resilience in the face of those conditions; identifying government’s misguided decisions; and finally showing the seeds of renewal as human ingenuity slowly restores balance to nature.