Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Love’s killing the country soundtrack
Those of you (and I know you’re out there) who visualise me attached to a permanent intravenous drip of three parts latte to one part chardonnay – the ratio shifting tidally during any diurnal period – may like to know this. I’ve found my inner frigger.
Don’t get too excited. A frigger is defined as someone with a broad Aussie accent who attends B&S balls and ute-musters, the rural equivalent of the bogan. True, Wikipedia has been sucked in before. And personally I’d spell it friggah. But the point remains, I’ve found her, my frigger (frigette? frigate?). And just in time, it seems, before country itself is gone, baby gone.
The lure is partly aural. Country has a soundtrack to die for, resonant with myth and collaged from too many childhood westerns. In red-dirt NSW, where I’ve been swagging it, sound scraps include the whack of axe on gidgie, the crackle of flame under billy, the eerie whinnying air over Mungo’s dried-up lake bed. The way each footfall, bare or blunnied, brings a short, deep thud from within the Earth’s belly. It’s not quite clank-of-spurs, nicker-of-steed or spit-of-cigar-butt-onto-dirt, but it’s close. Close enough.
So I altogether get why the Deniliquin ute muster attracts 6200-odd utes in a good year. And why a hundred thousand flock daily to Sydney’s Easter Show.
But it’s still not that simple. The modern swagperson must take care – to leave neither trash nor ember, extinguish neither spider nor snake, and pee etcetera to the full length and breadth of the Canberra-approved, green-star, ‘Strayan Standard. And although this habit-shift is fine in itself, it’s a mindset that can only white ant cowboy consciousness.
Why? Because friggerism – if you will – is essentially oppositional. Friggerism’s sustaining myth is a heroic one, and to be heroic it needs, at least in part, to see nature as foe. Worthy foe, but foe nonetheless. The instant nature gets recast as victim, to be nurtured and cared for not fought and conquered, the entire headspace collapses.
Yet it’s a form of enmity that implies no hatred. On the contrary, like the classic Ahab-whale relationship, the bond between the frigger and his planet is closer to love – but love of a kind that must express itself in battle. A kind that vanishes once the battle is won, or lost.
It may be that our need for such earth-conquering heroism is heightened by the singular absence of heroism in our conquering of the continent’s native people. But it’s our myth, all the same, this Aussie bush narrative, and its sacred sites are vanishing fast. As picked-clean dust farms are hoovered up wholesale by deep-pocket multinationals with an eye for coming global food shortages; as camping is increasingly restricted to ranger-ridden, light-no-fires, fines-will-apply designated sites; and as nature herself is increasingly cordoned off behind ropes, fences, boardwalks and viewing platforms, our link with the reality of this weird island continent becomes more tenuous, not less.
And yes, the arguments are all good. Nature needs our protection. Already, in a drought that is exacerbated, if not caused, by our extractive economy, threadbare merinos pick disconsolately at paddocks of grey dirt; laser-levelled rice paddies sit fallow, and every black-bottomed cloud brings a dust storm of desperate ploughing. Forests are vulnerable to fire, to dogs and to humans. And Lake Mungo, with its peachy dunes, saltbush plains and friable fossil treasures, may disappear if the tourist hordes are loosed upon it.
But, even leaving aside the irony by which Mungo’s fossils were first exposed by after-effects of frantic overgrazing, there’s a dilemma here. It’s a bit like the zoo dilemma, where catching and caging wild animals becomes essential to sustaining the love that protects their wild state. Conserving nature by stopping us touching it erodes the very sense of authenticity that urges us to keep it in the first place.
Call this Stonehenge Syndrome. It can produce some interesting architecture, as at the BP Parkland on Berrys Bay and the elevated frog-watching ring at Homebush Bay. But it does nothing for your connection with nature.
Lake Mungo may, as the artists tell us, be an intensely spiritual place, but unless you got in early you’ll never know, because walking the elevated timber bridge has such a clunky non-place soundtrack you may as well stay home, mind your carbon footprint and watch the DVD.
Add to that the peculiar asymmetry by which we ban ourselves from the bush but positively encourage soulless multinationals to clear-fell and laser-level much of the state for irrigation-needy crops like cotton and rice that’ll suck the last drops from the poor old Murray and Murrumbidgee, or welcome Monsanto’s proudly imminent, “roundup-ready” GM canola (properly known as rape seed).
And there you have it. Country is in a classic cleft stick. The question is not only can the country survive the drought, but can we rewrite its heroic myth in time to stop the whole frigging mindset blowing away like topsoil?