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Up the Back

I grew up on a farm in central west New South Wales. We had a place we called ‘up the back’ – a wilder part of the property that was hilly, rocky and treed. My imagination was formed there, among the black, furrowed trunks of ironbarks and cypress pine, lichenous rocks, and the stone trig site, built by Scots ancestors, on the highest point. I didn’t have words for it then, but, up there, I sensed what the country once was. Who I might be, too.

IT WAS MY FATHER who taught me to see, to pay attention to plants, trees, birds and animals, the sky, changing seasons – the ordinary and extraordinary of every day. I would travel up the back with him, in the yellow Bedford truck, hopping out to open (and close) the gates. There was always work to be done, but also time to stop and see if there were chicks in the wedgetail eagles’ nest in the towering ironbark.

He taught me to use his old manual camera. I photographed orange fungi on black trunks and fuzzy green lichen, fern and moss gardens beneath boulders. In those green years, although the wedgetail pair were always circling overhead, it was the miniature I homed in on.

When I was a little older, we rode motorbikes up, to muster cattle, and my father gave me my first camera. I started camping up on the trig site alone, with a view out to the wider world – the life that awaited me.

Up the back was land the oldest son didn’t want, although it adjoined his property. It was less productive. And so it went to my grandfather, the second son. Who sold it to my father, the only son. I had zero understanding of finance then, but I knew that up the back was priceless.

AFTER MY FATHER DIED, in yet another farming accident during yet another drought, my mother did things differently. She planted trees, rested and rotated paddocks, grew fewer crops and ran more cattle. For ten years, she did well, as did the land, admired by other farmers and passers-by. Even in tough times, her cattle, and the farm, were in good condition. But as she got older, it became too much, and she leased the property to big-farming neighbours. They went back to the old ways, sucking the place dry.

A decade on, dust swirling around her house, my mother is worn down, like soil. ‘It’s awful,’ I say. My mother nods, looking out over the brown paddocks. I make time to walk up the back. It’s dry. Someone has cut down the wedgetail eagles’ ironbark for firewood, leaving great rounds on the ground. It was long dead, but still housed the nest that had been there since my father was a child. Something in me breaks. There are too many cattle on the place. I pass a carcass at the base of the hill; tracks and manure stain the trig site, thistles and weeds have moved in. I sit at the top, on a rock, looking out. I’ve just turned fifty, but here I’m always a child.

The region where I live now burned in the 2019–2020 fires. I’m carrying a grief that can no longer be contained in my body, but still I haven’t cried. I’m held there, somehow, and it all starts to leak out. I haven’t been camping since I left school. I’m not even sure why anymore but the urge is strong now. To be up the back on my own.

I’ve brought my camera. The process of framing photos helps me to see the fireplace thick with lichen, wearing the rocks down into earth, fallen cypress pines with ribs and spines, the ironbarks, ever solid. I want to stay but the light is leaving; my mother is expecting me for dinner.

She asks how I’d feel about selling the farm. ‘It’s your inheritance,’ she says. ‘Sell it,’ I say. ‘Live somewhere really nice. I’ve been telling you to do that for a decade.’ ‘I know.’ Her voice wavers. It’s a big decision. ‘On one condition,’ I say. ‘I want to keep up the back. Fix it. Make it a nature reserve.’

THE FIRST STEP is to stop farming. My mother had leased up the back to another neighbour, who is running more cattle than agreed and is six months behind on his payments. She terminates the lease. The cattle are removed. When I return, it’s to help my mother pack up her home of fifty-six years. She and my father built it by hand, with stones from up the back – and ironbark. It was my home, too – my childhood – and it’s harder than I expected. I photograph the things we can’t take, like my father’s stained-glass lightshades, and his workshop, where I watched him at the forge, shaping metal into dragons and eagles.

I take time out from lugging boxes to walk up the back, excited to see it now the damage has stopped. But I find forty cattle and a mob of sheep running deep ruts along the fence lines. My father’s cousin (the son of the first son) has been running stock up there without permission – or agistment payments. I snap some pictures, as evidence, and storm home. It takes another few months, but these animals, too, are removed.

TWELVE MONTHS LATER, I park across the road from the house that is no longer ours, hoist my pack on my shoulders and walk up the back. It’s green. With nothing to eat or trample them, trees are shooting up everywhere: ironbarks, red gums, grey box, stringybarks. Wildflowers, too: yellow paper daisies, bluebells, tall bluebells, the buttery guinea flowers.

I set up my tent where I did as a child, looking out over bright fields of yellow canola, treelined creeks and stock routes. While I’m gathering wood, I startle a mob of grey kangaroos hopping up the track towards my camp. The buck, six-feet tall and muscles rippling across his chest, looks past me, to my small, bright-green tent. He pulls his head back, recoiling at the intrusion, just as I would. Afterwards, I notice the flattened beds of kangaroos nestled into hollows, between logs; this is their campsite, too. That night, I leave the fly off the tent so I can see the stars, counting those that fall, with the breeze on my face, as free as I have felt for years.

In the morning, I walk down to the dam, surrounded by ironbarks and a weeping red gum. The submerged, reflected versions of the ironbarks seem bigger, their trunks darker and more furrowed. A family of kangaroos comes down to drink, breaking the surface tension on the water.

When I call in at my mother’s new place on the way home, she says that no-one can remember that dam ever going dry, though it’s only shallow, with a sandy base. It’s marked on all the old maps, with a creek running through it. ‘There must be a spring,’ I say. ‘It’s a waterhole,’ my mother says.

THE NEXT STEP is to restore the road. I want to be able to drive in, to the waterhole, in all weather, and to move around the farm to plant trees and remove weeds.

A friend with a grader, Brownie, comes out to have a look. We follow the old track on foot, compacted quartz from gold-mining days. The question is where to take the road down into Peelers Gully. Where we used to go has washed out and trees have fallen down. We appraise a flattish bare spur as the most likely route. This time I’m camped by the waterhole. Soft ground, the luxury of water, a camp chair, frogs calling. It is a completely different experience. I’m surrounded by ironbarks, conscious of each one, and the feeling of them collectively. The waterhole is the centre of life, with birds and animals coming to drink from dawn to dark: eastern rosellas, superb parrots, galahs, currawongs, honeyeaters, magpies, willy wagtails, crested pigeons, wallabies, kangaroos, a wallaroo, a turtle, an echidna – and a fox. When I stand by the edge that night, the fire dying down, it is so still, millions of stars are reflected in the water. In Wiradjuri, billabong also means the Milky Way. I’m at a portal.

That night I’m woken by ducks landing on the waterhole with a great splash and much honking. A kangaroo hops past and, somewhere, a barn owl screams.

I spend the next morning removing thistles and weeds from around the waterhole. I have grand plans to grow great tracts of trees, linking the forested areas. But I start small: just eight ironbark seedlings that I can carry up to the trig site. I dig holes between rocks, water each seedling in, and erect a guard: three canes and a sheath of plastic, to protect them while they grow.

This time, when I visit my mother on the way home, I explain where the track will go. But she says not to put it where it looks like there should be a road. ‘That turns to quicksand when it’s wet,’ she says. Over lunch, more stories come out. If I were to ask her direct questions, she would say she can’t remember, but this way, the past bubbles up freely. The track past the waterhole has been there a long time. ‘Brice showed me the rails,’ she says, ‘from the gold carts.’

I NEVER VISIT my father’s grave. I’m closest to him roaming around up the back. But I am not my father. He believed he had to use the land, farming the property to death, trying to extract a living.

There are other ghosts. Up the back is stolen land, Wiradjuri Country. There are stone tools and two scar trees, one right near my fireplace, which took me a lifetime to see. The land was mined, great holes and tunnels torn. My parents mined it, too, unearthing stones to build our home and then a holiday house on the coast – where I now live.

I avoid the spot on the side of the hill called Gillams, where my uncle – my mother’s brother – died. He had been cutting firewood to sell, without my mother’s knowledge. His final act was to shoot a great male kangaroo and take a picture of the body on his phone.

My mother tells me that she and my father burnt all the ringbarked trees on Gillams.

‘We walked from tree to tree with tapers of stringybark and a tin of sump oil … setting them on fire, one by one. Gillams looked a lot better after that.’ I cover my face.

‘We didn’t ringbark them,’ she says. ‘We didn’t know then about hollows and habitat.’

Eucalypts persist. Stringybark and ironbark seedlings have shot up at the base of the trig site hill, spreading towards the treed hill opposite. I feel a strong life force there, as if the trees are communicating with each other, above and below ground.

I describe the forest of trees marching towards the others to my mother. ‘Brice always said he couldn’t stop them growing there,’ she says. ‘They just kept shooting up.’

Those hills never really leave my mind. They shaped me, framed the way I see the world. They are me. And while I was elsewhere, they kept growing, expanding above and below, anchoring me to earth and sky, until I found my way back.

WHEN I NEXT VISIT, it’s winter, and wetter than I’ve seen it. I arrive at dusk, the sky pink. The moment when I first see the waterhole, I feel a thrill, something settling in my blood. It’s full, as full as it gets. I set up camp in the almost dark, moving efficiently to gather kindling, light the fire, set up the tent, lay out my mattress and sleeping bag. I put my camp chair next to the now blazing fire, between red gums, and pour a glass of red wine. Low cloud is obscuring the stars, but the ironbarks, reflected on the surface of the waterhole, are thick with new growth. The ground beneath is carpeted with pink blossoms. The frogs are so many and so loud that I wonder how I will sleep.

At sunrise, the bird noise is deafening. Superb parrots and eastern rosellas wheel overhead, kookaburras, and a raucous cacophony from the weeping red gum. I recognise their song: friarbirds. When I take a closer look, there are noisy friarbirds with black faces and a lump on their beak, but also little friarbirds, with beautiful blue eye patches. I’ve never seen either of them there before.

Daylight reveals a whole new understorey: paper daisies, now low shrubs, beneath the ironbarks. Acres and acres of them. A few are already flowering, bright yellow. Come spring, they are going to be magnificent.

When I climb up to the trig site to check on the seedlings, the slopes are lush with green grass, lomandra, daisies, bluebells, tall bluebells. I’m excited to see how much my seedlings have grown.

But the kangaroos have been busy. The green plastic guards have all been knocked over and the ironbarks’ tiny trunks nipped off. Only two are intact: one that I couldn’t find again when planting, which had no guard, and another, jammed in between two rocks. They are bushy, almost a foot and a half tall. I retrieve the guards, blown over the steep slope, marvelling at the wonders around me: ferns, mosses, fungi, flowers. It’s the fairyland it was when I was a child.

When I do a circuit around the property, the wedgetail pair circle high above the trig site, a kestrel follows me, hoping I’ll scare up a snack. Great flocks of superb parrots, groups of twenty, thirty, forty and fifty, wheel around in noisy murmurations. They are threatened, but after a wet summer and spring, here at least, they are abundant. Their chatter is so cheerful, it can’t help but buoy my spirits.

I ring my mother. ‘It’s the playground it was when I was a kid,’ I say. ‘Better.’ ‘It was a playground for Brice, too. He went up there all the time.’

Returning over and over is how you learn a place – your relationship to it. I walk differently up the back. My steel-capped boots fit better, with the old ease and swagger. It’s where my child self and middle-aged self can come to terms. Up the back is scarred, damaged; it will never be what it was. But, with a little help, it can recover. There is still beauty, wildness. It is where I am most wild.