Back in late ’79 I’d just returned to the Old Brown Land from an extended stay in the Long Cloud, also known as the Shaky Isles and New Zealand, and after a brief sojourn in Sydney – where I worked as a reader of Acts and Bills for the State Government Printer – I decided it was time I rediscovered the Australia I had most missed during my time in voluntary exile.
My new girlfriend suggested we go down to work in the fruit out on the irrigation country in the arid south-west corner of New South Wales, close to the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers; rivers that, sadly, are both now in the desperate stages of what is probably a terminal illness, a tragedy made even more poignant by their iconic status, for the Murray–Darling system holds the same place in Australians’ hearts as the Mississippi does in yours.
We decided to head for the Coomealla district, just over the river from Mildura on the Victoria side, so with a few clothes, provisions and some camp-cooking gear in a couple of small backpacks and my guitar case in my hand, we got out on the highway to thumb the 650-odd road miles to Dareton. It ended up taking about three days – school holiday times were never the best for hitching – but there were still enough farmhands and ordinary bush people on the road to get us there in relative comfort and summer temperatures made for easy sleeping under the sky.
We were lucky. We got there about three weeks before the grape harvest began – it was a late season – but a few enquiries over beers at the Coomealla pub directed us to the extended Judd family who hired us in advance of the harvest, telling us we could have the use of their old pickers’ hut, one of the last in the district. We were doubly lucky; most of the old-style huts had been swept aside in a wave of local governments’ passion for “progress” that had its partner in State government “rationalizations” that had resulted in the doing away of the “Fruit-Fly Special” – a coach attached to the regular passenger train service to Mildura that offered cheap transport to the fruit districts for itinerant city workers.
We spent nearly two years in that hut. Shaded by huge old “Atholl pines” – tamarisks – that gave relief from the worst of the 120-in-the-shade summer days, it was basic but cosy. A small bedroom and larger kitchen with room for a table and chairs were in the hut proper, while outside were a shower – hot water courtesy of a little wood-fired “donkey-boiler” attached to a hotwater tank made from a 44-gallon fuel drum – and a traditional style outhouse. The hut was ventilated with big corrugated-iron clad shutters that were propped open to allow for free passage of air.
The Judds were a close-knit family of Seventh Day Adventists whose dinky-di Australian-ness somehow blended with their religious beliefs, seemingly with no effort. They may have inwardly shuddered at the lifestyles of neighbors and employees, but without exception were neighborly and polite to all they encountered and always willing to help someone in need. More than once we were “loaned out” to help one of their fellow growers who’d had difficulty getting enough labor to do essential work.
For two full seasons we picked sultanas, currants and raisins, pruned and “pulled out” – removed the spent sultana canes from the trellis wires – and sweated on the drying racks. When not working for the Judds we picked oranges for Col, a very irreligious neighbor who was also a good drinking partner with a fine singing voice. With me on guitar we worked out a great arrangement of “Lucky Old Sun” that brought the house down at a hooley one night.
Being Seventh Day Adventists, the older generation of male Judds would not take up arms during World War Two, serving instead in the Medical Corps. At war’s end, not a few went back to the South Pacific to serve as what they called “medical missionaries” in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia; one such was a Judd family member known to all as Uncle Tom.
I liked Tom. He had a wicked sense of humor and loved a yarn; he also had one of those minds that ceaselessy wander through the pastures of the imagination, picking a bit from here, a bit from there and chewing them over and over till he’d extracted every bit of mental sustenance that he possibly could. I also admired his religious conviction. Like the rest of the Judd clan I never once heard him curse anyone. He might admit that he couldn’t understand this or that, but he would never condemn. A town desperate, known for his violence when the booze had him, was known to have beaten his wife and Tom was so moved as to criticize him: “He could be a better man were it not for the drink.” Charlie Judd was the same. Some urchin kids had opened the water channel near his house, flooding the front yard. “I wish you had been there, Frank,” he said. “You could have told them off much better than I was able.”
Back to the yarn. Uncle Tom had been a medical missionary for 10 years and smokos and the meal break were enlivened by stories of his time in the islands. Having a mind similar to Tom’s, I soaked up his anecdotes like a sponge.
Being a staunch SDA, Tom was also a firm believer in natural foods and was full of criticisms of the modern diet. Homogenised milk was, according to Uncle Tom, very dangerous, because the process rendered the fat molecules small enough to pass through the stomach wall and directly into the bloodstream. Then there was the yaws story.
Yaws is an ugly, tropical skin disease caused by a spirochaete bacteria. The disease, he told us, was rife among the islanders he worked with and its control became a major concern. However, as yaws cases decreased, the incidence of syphillis began to rise. It was found, he said, that the yaws spirochaete supressed that which caused syphillis.
And so we come to the point of this discourse – and if you think I’m a long-winded writer then be warned, never engage me in actual conversation. It must have been a year after I left the Murray–Darling that I was listening to a radio documentary on the rise and spread of AIDS. One of the scientists involved in the hunt for the culprit described how it had for so long eluded them because, and this is how I recall it, the virus “hid behind” the smallpox virus, to which it was very similar. Uncle Tom’s yaws story sprang to mind. Didn’t AIDS proliferate at about the same time that smallpox was “eliminated”? (See footnote.)
I remember another radio documentary about the rise in heart disease and the link to changes in the diet. The increase in consumption of fatty foods was seen as a major culprit and much discussion ensued about fats from seafood and fats from land animals – Omega 3 was soon to become a profitable buzz phrase.
Yet another radio program, this one on the decline of traditional farming, contained a comment by an English farmer bemoaning the loss of diversity in livestock breeds, particularly pigs – there are now, generally speaking, only two or three breeds of pig raised commercially.
This and the rise of factory farming, he said, has led to animals putting on what he called “soft fat”. Prior to WWII, he went on, animals were hardened by roaming pastures for feed and their fat had a different composition, “hard fat” as the old-timer put it.
Another documentary, another bit of trivia. The traditional meats consumed by Australia’s indigenous peoples contain higher levels of Omega-3s than does meat in the modern diet. Wild sheep, the ancestors of today’s breeds, also contain significant levels of this fatty acid. Has intensive farming and the livestock feeds associated with it changed the chemical composition of the meat we eat? I know that grain-fed beef smells and tastes faintly of the pellets you feed domestic chickens when you run out of grains, so why wouldn’t this be so?
Okay, so you reckon it’s all far-fetched and fanciful, but spare me days, I have to do something with my mind.
Australia’s taxpayer-subsidised ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) broadcasts what I believe is among the world’s best public affairs content – despite constant attacks from politicians and corporate giants who insist that straight down the centerline reporting is “political bias” if it doesn’t happen to coincide with special interests.