By Laura Fisher
Bingara is 7 hours drive from Sydney - it’s a long way to travel to attend a festival. In the last few years I’ve done it 8 or 10 times. And it is indeed an epic drive. But it teaches you much about the state of the country and the puzzle of our times. Over my many journeys my eyes have learnt to seek out different features of the landscape.
…Starting with the mountainous slopes of the coal mines that appear when you’re around 200km from Sydney, approaching Singleton in the Hunter Valley. They seem to be out of science fiction - it’s obvious they are artificial, but their enormous proportions make it hard to believe they are manmade structures.
Pushing further into grazing country, this time I notice that there are barely any cows and sheep around. Farmers have ‘de-stocked’ because of the lack of rain, there’s nothing for them to eat. Here and there I see a small posse of cows standing around a hay bale, also a strange, dystopian image.
The colour scheme is certainly not right. The dominant colour is brown, and there is bare earth everywhere. Sometimes the exposed earth is a deep red. Now and then a radiant green paddock appears, where a farmer has managed to irrigate his patch, perhaps from a creek or a spring. They are so luminous and surreal, like a glass of green cordial out of place.
I used to enjoy the sense of wide open space stretching out before me – it’s a bit like facing the ocean. But now I see it differently, trying to imagine how much vegetation has been lost. I feel this especially around Murrurundi and Willow Tree. I look at the treeline at the base of the hills, wondering where that treeline was in the past, and what the native grasslands might have looked like. For decades, the forests must have seemed limitless. One farmer clearing their land was of little consequence. But now those decisions have collectively produced a problem that exacerbates hard times. Without forests transpiring water into the atmosphere, there is less local rainfall. Without the trees, the ecosystems that support smaller plants, the pollinators, the soil organisms, the bird habitats – they all diminish too.
The healthiest parts of the landscape are the verges by the side of the road. Sometimes the difference is stunning, with bare earth on one side of the fence (private land), and native grasses and green weeds flourishing on the road side.
Contrasting verges and fencelines.
Driving on north of Tamworth, there are two other things that are hard to ignore: stressed trees and eroded gullies. Enormous dead limbs of trees lie at the base of trunks, as the trees sacrifice their extraneous branches. Sometimes there’s a concentration of this in particular paddocks, making me wonder what in particular about the land management there has made them more vulnerable. The gullies weave their way along beside the road in many places, sometimes 10 metres deep or more. I used to see them as ‘creeks’, but they are in fact watercourses that would once have been shallower, wider, and full of wetland plants. What has happened to create these curving, rutted grooves in the landscape? Degraded soils that have lost their plant-life, lost their spongy structure over many years of being overworked. When the rains come, water rips down the slopes, taking the soil with it and creating the gullies. It’s a runaway problem, because having lost the capacity to absorb the water, those landscapes only get a fraction of the hydration they are thirsting for.
So why is KSCA staging Groundswell in a place like Bingara, so far away from many people familiar with what we do live? There are many reasons, but here’s just one. The land I’ve just described might be private land… but it sort of isn’t. Many people are making the argument that the forests, watercourses and the soil itself should be seen as belonging to all of us, and that we all have a duty of care to regenerate them. The exciting thing is that there are lots of people doing it already, with a lot of brain work. They’re bloody amazing. Hence Groundswell. So load up some podcasts, pack your tent and get out of the city.
You can find the full program of Groundswell and Pulse of the Earth here.