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Good Country

You can’t grow grass and trees, my dad used to say. This myth framed as truth must have been passed down from his father, grandfather, forefathers. A string of farmers trying to find home in a strange land. We grew wheat. And our land, a place of rich red soil rolling gently in on itself, was no more a place for trees.

The old map on the wall of my parents’ house tells me our farm is located on Good Country. It’s also Wiradjuri Country, something I learnt too late. What Good Country meant in 1909 is that it had already been cleared. The eucalypts on the rise, the she-oaks along the streams, the trees that used to inhabit the land, had been ringbarked, left to die, then burnt. You can’t grow grass and trees.

The pepper trees near the sheep yards, the poplars near the dam, the blue gum on the corner planted by my grandfather. These trees were our navigation markers. Those who escaped the axe, who spoke wordlessly of another world – the gums scattered sparely in gullies and folds – weren’t mapped.

In the mid-1990s, Mum and Dad started a Landcare group with local farmers. They received a grant, Dad fenced off a few tree lots – strips of land around ten metres wide, running parallel with paddock boundaries – and we began planting.

One tree lot became two, three, more. We spent our school holidays planting trees. We spent weekends planting trees. We moaned, we fought, we cursed our parents for not taking us to the beach like normal people. We planted trees.

Soon, Mum began growing trees as well as planting them. She converted the horse stables into a nursery, and Dad welded her racks for plants, set up an irrigation system, and mixed potting media with the bobcat. Some years she’d grow up to 50,000 trees for planting projects across the district.

Mum tells me how she’d sing Paul Kelly’s ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, as she worked. ‘Especially when I was doing my first major order of casuarinas,’ she says. ‘They were tiny little things.’ I imagine her – red check shirt tucked into jeans, golf cap on head, secateurs in back pocket – ceasing her endless busyness for a few short seconds, humming as she runs her hand over the tops of freshly sprouted seedlings.

We planted a few hundred trees. We planted a few thousand trees. We planted tens of thousands of trees on our farm. Soon, we were growing wheat and trees.

My dad, the best of men, quietly shifted his language. ‘You can’t grow grass and trees’ was no longer written in thick black pen, capitalised, underlined, full stopped. It had slipped from fact towards fiction.

My mum knew the meaning of Good Country all along.