Women in drought
By Genevieve Jacobs
Ladies and gentlemen. when I’m asked to speak, I usually begin by explaining who I am. Most often, my audience is interested in hearing something entertaining or funny – the exigiencies of radio gardening, a funny thing happened on the way to Floriade. But tonight I want to talk to you about who I am in a very different way and in doing so, I want to take you on a journey. It won’t take you very far away, this trip. It’s no more than an easy drive outside the borders of this busy, comfortable city where people are just now beginning to realise what it is like to live without water.
In many ways, however, this is a journey to a very different kind of Australia, an old Australia – the Australia of small towns and dusty roads, of people whose days are often spent in solitude and for whom the busy, resource rich buzz of a vibrant capital is entirely alien.
I am from this country and of these people. I was born at Quandialla near West Wyalong, of farmers and graziers who have lived on those western plains since the time the Wiradjuri roamed them. My grandfather played with the indigenous children by the banks of the Bland Creek, and there is a memorial there to a distant great great uncle, killed in a wild cattle muster a century and a half ago. This is the place of my heart, but across rural NSW there are a thousand tales just the same – of places knit into people’s very being, in their blood and bones, the pulse of their hearts, the dirt that patterns their skin.
And for the past few years, these have also been places of quiet, intense, deep suffering. The magnitude of this drought is easily borne out by statistics – the lowest recorded rainfalls, the ballooning rates of rural depression and, chillingly, the increase in single car accidents – that final refuge of the desperate man who can see no way out and wants his family to have, at least, the insurance that will give them some shred of dignity. On our own farm in the well-watered country at Wallendbeen on the South West Slopes, 2006 was the first year since my husband’s great-great grandfather arrived in 1842 when there was no crop at all.
Take a moment to consider this from your own viewpoint. Imagine that you have a job that you do well. You work hard and are conscientious about what you do. Your job is an economically useful one that does not depend on fleeting fads and nor are you doing it in an unsuitable, risky place. Your family has carried out this task for many years and you are conscious that there is honour attached to the work, a feeling that you and your family can carry your heads high and walk with dignity among your neighbours and friends.
And then one day, it all simply disappears. You’ve done nothing wrong or differently, there’s been no warning – but everything around you turns to dust and ashes. There is no money – no money at all. And also, there is no way out
For thousands of farming families, this is the daily, ongoing reality of this drought. As an aside, you might throw into the mix the endless media chat about marginal farming country, written by those who couldn’t tell the difference between hogget chops and hogwash.
I’m not here to speak with you about people who have speculated wildly on unsuitable land and ravaged ecosystems, and are now paying the price. Rather it is the plight of those of us who have steadily, quietly produced the food on your plates, the wool on your backs and the grain in your bread for the last 100 years or more. Those who plant trees and nurture soils and tend to waterways, and who use their land as wisely and well as they know how. It would be hubris to suggest that we on the land have nothing to regret in our stewardship, but it is equally wrong to suggest that all those on the land are environmental vandals who need to be purged like a plague of locusts.
In the last month or so, we have been blessed by rain – wonderful, bounteous, well timed blessed rain. But not rain that fills bank accounts. Not rain that has the power to pay fuel bills or seed costs, fend off bank managers or replace livestock. It’s easy to assume when we see those photographs of muddy rain dances with hats hurled high into the air that rain is all it takes, but the impact of this drought is more akin to a hurricane than a willy willy. It has torn deep into the foundations of rural life in a way that will take years to heal. And here we come to the rural women, on whom our focus rests tonight.
Why rural women in particular? First and most obviously, because the Catholic Women’s Commission’s business is women of all kinds. Our vision is that the Commission will address women’s needs across this wide area of the archdiocese, stretching from Lake Cargelligo to Cooma and beyond.
Our specific aims are to work towards a better gender balance within the church and its structures; to affirm the role of women in ministry, and pastoral support of each other; to respond to the many social justice issues that affect women, including indigenous women, and to engage with young women in particular; to reflect on who women are in the modern church and to support women’s roles in inclusive liturgy.
Of those aims, two stand out particularly: to affirm the role of women in pastoral support and to respond to the many social justice issues that face women in our region. I’ve painted a picture for you of how desperate life has been for rural people everywhere, but now I want to talk specifically about the role that women play in these circumstances.
They are simply the glue that holds rural Australia together. Because farming and other rural occupations are so often solitary, women bear the burden of the family’s emotional wellbeing. Few rural men are at ease seeking counselling. While some find companionship in the pub or on the sporting field, many more have learnt from their fathers and grandfathers to lock their emotions deep inside, and inside those feelings remain as they scatter feed to hungry sheep, and watch the wind burn their crops and pastures. A friend told me recently that for the first time in 25 years of marriage, she had found her husband sobbing, crying as if his heart would break at the sense that he had failed her and his family. He could not, would not believe that he was not alone. Another friend’s husband is a vet – he has unpaid bills stretching back 12 and 18 months but neither the time nor the heart to pursue them because the need is so great and he cannot deny his friends and neighbours.
We spoke of the need to stay cheerful – the home made strategies that we all use to make home a place of support and welcome.,, the storing up of funny stories that might make the men laugh, the insistence on accepting any invitation that would involve men talking together without pressure. Another friend told me that after the death of a neighbour, the women in their district have set up an informal barbecue network every Friday night. Each host provides the sausages, everyone brings a salad – because otherwise the men would never unburden themselves. It’s their old fashioned, stubborn, heart wrenching dignity.
And then there are the sacrifices when there is no money at all. A woman I know regularly musters cattle for her son. He’s away working and his mother is on the long paddock with a mob of cows and calves – she’s 72.
The aim of our fundraising this evening is very simple. We want to help these women talk. Women know how to heal themselves and they are very good at making networks. It is rarely the rural women who kill themselves, partly because so many others depend on them, but also because they understand intuitively how to support one another.
Our dream with this evening is that we will enable women in drought stricken areas to do something very simple – to go out and have a meal together. To leave the farm or business for an evening and sit with other women, sharing and helping each other. To laugh together, to have good ideas, to bring back stories to their menfolk by which they’ll understand they are not alone.
So I thank you for your time and your generosity. May the rains continue to fall, and hope, once again, rise up from the dry soils of rural Australia.
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