`The bush' has become another country (OZ)

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`The bush' has become another country
Tuesday 6 June 2000

It defied local understanding. The middle-aged man was seen walking along the leaf-littered edge of a country road carrying a long stick with a piece of wire on the end. My friend who was watching had lived there for decades, but took some time to realise he was witnessing the workings of another world.

This story was told to highlight one of the great divides of our society. This divide is not between races, religions or ethnic backgrounds. It is nothing to do with black and white, Protestant and Catholic, Jew or Muslim. It is to do with city and country.

In the moving tides of political influence, commentators are now looking at the rise of the rural backlash, a force that ejected the Kennett Government and on May13 delivered the tantalising prize of Benalla to Labor.

Using the shorthand language spoken in power's corridors, it is being derided as RARA-land (Rural And Regional Australia). This is the place hard-line economic rationalists like to visit wearing tweed jacket, Akubra and elastic-sided boots, before closing schools, hospitals and banks.

But back to the man with the stick. He came from the city and, with his family, had bought some farmland and made a weekend retreat. The stick and wire was a symbol that the romance of a country Eden was tempered by the real fear of a potential serpent. This guy's terror of snakes was such that, even in his country paradise, he would not walk anywhere without the stick as protection.

It goes both ways. Despite communications and transport being faster and more convenient than ever, I have country friends who rarely venture into the city. They mutter about city drivers, drug addicts and muggers.

I interviewed a family of drovers a couple of years ago who confessed to being so uncomfortable with urbanisation that they hardly even went into a large country town, yet spent their evenings pondering a world portrayed on their tiny TV screen.

Another man I know described his perception of the city: unaware, out-of-touch, pampered. But, as I pointed out, many city people would say the same about the country.

We know that many proto-images of Australian identity were founded in country mythology: things like The Man from Snowy River and Ned Kelly. But the past 100 years has seen the rural proportion of the Australian population shrink from around 50per cent to just 13per cent.

In the 1996 census, out of Australia's 17.8million population, 11.2million lived in large urban areas, 4.1million in medium-to-large country towns and just 2.5million in small towns and the bush. Agricultural mechanisation and the take-over of small family farms by conglomerates have seen to that. While there might be some resurgence of non-urban political power, economic and cultural power is now concentrated near the main city centres.

The country might still feed the city, but the city's concept of feeding itself involves little more than reaching out to the supermarket shelves.

Life close to the city centre has become a human monoculture. Like plants in a wheat field, or battery chooks, the inner-urban human exists in an artificially created intensity. In day-to-day city lives, folks can forget they share the planet with any other animal species, except for slipping in the inconvenience of dog poo or visits from the occasional pigeon or sparrow.

In the country, despite agricultural chemicals and pesticides, nature is always there either as friend or foe.

But things have changed. The rural dynasties that once controlled Victorian agriculture from their mansions in places like the Western District have been replaced by agribusinessmen whose corporate headquarters are in Collins Street, East Melbourne or South Yarra.

Our new rural potentates may get mud on their designer boots from time to time, but more often they also sip skilfully made caffe lattes in the coziness of Lygon, Brunswick or Chapel Streets. Those urbanites who do seek a break from city life might go to a beach resort or the snowfields, but these are not the country, they are colonies of the city, replete with espresso machines and piped music from MTV.

Even country towns and regional cities can be divided between those that attract city visitors and those that do not. How many city folks, when they think of visiting the country, conjure up places like Castlemaine, Maldon, Daylesford, Bright or Mansfield? These are places that have been able to capitalise on city fantasies of rural nostalgia, with quaintly preserved streetscapes, "bush markets" or horse races involving mountain-cattlemen types.

So what about the other country where city people rarely go? Places where they agonise in the main street about wheat and wool prices.

The distinction was highlighted in the Benalla byelection. The towns with the biggest city focus, the tourist centres of Bright and Mansfield, swung 14per cent in Labor's direction. The main city of Benalla swung about 8per cent. But in the little country polling booths, they mainly stayed with the National Party. These are the places tourists might drive past but never stop; it is hard to get a decent cup of coffee here; culturally these places are still the old bush.

And, as National Party strategists lamented after the byelection, fewer and fewer people live there any more.
Geoff Strong is a staff writer.

Forum regulars will know I live in the country, the deeper bush. This story is true - people are leaving the country, yet Australians sense of self is cemented in a lore of the bush. The lure of the bush is largely an unfulfilled wish for most who are chained to an urban mono-culture. The divide is stark.

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), June 05, 2000


Isn't this more or less true everywhere? Doesn't the Internet economy offer the potential for greater population dispersal and less urban concentration? Seems to me it should work that way but so far it hasn't. What am I missing?

-- Lars (lars@indy.net), June 05, 2000.

Hola Mr Pieter,

That was a very nice piece, I live in west texas, the middle of no where, I think it may be sorta like the bush in OZ, and it is hard to live here also, but i will forever, or until they pulverize me, which could happen one of these days.

The bush in Australia is the only other place I have ever wanted to see besides west Texas, I think they are the same.


-- sandy (rstyree@overland.net), June 05, 2000.

G'Day Lars & Sandy,
The Australian bush is a daunting biosphere of an immensity that stretches beyond. Often we call it beyond, back of beyond, or simply outback. Those who respect it will be all right, but them that fear it have a problem with it, and a problem with themselves more likely.

It is a frightening thing, the emptiness I mean. The lone-some magnitude of it all. If by yourself camping on the Parnka Point at night with the susurrant ocean distant, and all of it suddenly punctuated with the chilling cry of spurwing plover as they wheel over nearby dunes; if then you don't feel utterly alone well your just not normal.

And that's the bush. It belongs to the resilient. I've never had a problem with any of the beyond, but many do.

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), June 06, 2000.


You are a poet. I wish you would write more of your own words and do less copy n pasting. Thank you for the wonderful sibilant word "susurrant". I did not know that word but I immediately liked it. And it sounds just like its meaning.

-- Lars (lars@indy.net), June 06, 2000.

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