The ‘scrub’ lands west of the Bogan River were a problem for settlers, governments, and the whole civilising project right from the start. It was a place of murder and massacre, a place of environmental degradation and animal suffering.
In the late nineteenth century the semiarid woodlands here became the site of two experiments. The first was concerned with testing the capacity of white men’s bodies to carry out manual labour in the interior’s hot and isolated environment: governments and landholders could no longer import ‘coloured’ labour because Australia led the world in new racial restrictions on immigration. The second experiment attempted to turn millions of acres of dry woodlands into wheatlands.
One was corporeal with little planning or forethought. The other was cerebral and material and was carried out according to the formal principles of an emerging field of science. Both were about dealing with a ‘hostile’ environment and for understanding how Europeans could handle heat and aridity. The experiments arose from the intersection of local and empire-wide anxieties and were underpinned by provocative new ideas about the living world.
In 1898 Robert Peacock was thirty-one years old, alone in the far west, in charge of a new experiment farm and assigned with the remarkable responsibility of undertaking what was perhaps the most ambitious project scientific agriculture had attempted yet. He stood amongst the forlorn remnants of former abundance, on red ground strewn with parched fragments of soil-holding bushes, surrounded by grey and black dead timber, and pulverised grasses. Tumbleweeds rode the wind from out of the flats and collected on fences or in the thickening scrub. Most worrying of all, the ‘perpetual summer winds’ were creating ‘ever-increasing’ scalded plains of bared subsoil.
Writing in the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales in 1900, Peacock declared the pastoral occupation of the west was ‘a period of deterioration unexampled in the history of New South Wales’. The numerous and visible examples of environmental degradation were ‘too familiar landmarks, resulting from the mistakes of the past, and calculated to teach valuable lessons to those willing to listen to the voice and teachings of Nature’. For Peacock nature was an active presence. He gave it a voice. These were the admonitions of a professional in a tough situation, invoking the higher authority of ‘Nature’ against those who he blamed for recklessly exploiting the drylands.
The New South Wales Government spent £107,000 clearing half a million acres, but by 1900 only three to four thousand was under crop.
Peacock abandoned the wheat trials and tried to restore the native vegetation. He began conducting experiments with Saltbush as a remedial plant.
Over one hundred years later that’s what Ray Thompson, an environmental officer, was doing. Ray uses a laser level to work out the gradients for doing ‘water-ponding’ works on properties near Girilambone, Coolabah and The Marra scalds. The oval-shaped banks of earth retain moisture and catch the seeds of native grasses and shrubs. He’d spent most of his working life doing this. Last time I spoke to him he’d created 66,356 waterponds and rehabilitated 33,178 hectares of scalded land.