Chapter 1 – The Iron Rule
There’s one iron rule I have: Do not sleep with your employees. Even the volunteers. Especially the volunteers.
So, Javier can flash me that dimpled grin over his coffee mug, and follow me around the kitchen with those seagreen eyes under their long, dark lashes. Ain’t nothing doing, Mister.
Like most life lessons, I had to learn this one the hard way.
A young man can be as woke as you like, as biddable and compliant as you could wish for, as sensitive a male feminist as you can imagine. Fully in touch with his feminine side. What we used to call a New Man back in the day.
Yet, when he gets cosy in a woman’s bed, he’ll try to take over her life and her farm. It will soon be ‘Can’t we just stay in bed another hour, babe?’ and ‘The steers don’t need moving today: there’s still good grazing in that paddock, sweetie.’
Before an independent, capable, self-reliant woman can blink an eye, the man in her life will be making decisions on her behalf. They just can’t help themselves, I guess. But darn, it is aggravating.
Trouble is, a girl gets horny, out here in the country, doing hard, physical work alongside fit, eager young men. Often intelligent, sweet young men with cute, exotic accents. WWOOFers, that’s Willing Workers On Organic Farms, come to New South Wales from all over the world, prepared to work their butts off (their muscled, lithe little butts) for board and lodging and the chance to learn some practical on-farm skills.
I’ve tried to avoid temptation by employing more women or couples. Or couples of women. But it leaves an ache. And young women can be every bit as troublesome as young men. More so. At least you know what’s on young men’s minds.
It’s not like there’s a lot of off-farm talent to choose from, I reflect, as I pull on boots, oilskin vest and battered old Akubra, and head out the kitchen door into the dewy morning.
The women in the scatter of farmsteads that make up the ‘township’ of Fiery Creek all worry that I’m out to steal their husbands or seduce their sons. At CWA meetings, I can see their lips pursed in disapproval like a bunch of chooks’ clackers. I’m not only a single woman in the prime of life, but a blow-in as well, having been here in the Blue Mountains a mere eight years. Doubly suss.
I hate to break it to you, ladies: your hairy-eared, pot-bellied old man is about as attractive to me as your thick-necked, red-faced son. Which is to say, not at all. The flower of Fiery Creek manhood is safe from this shameless hussy.
Deep barking from over the brow of the hill interrupts my thoughts.
Something has set the Maremmas off. Or someone. Probably that silly Emmi from Munich, twenty-two, Daisy Dukes, blonde pigtails and no common sense. None at all.
She will not understand that those cute, fluffy doggoes are livestock guardians, not pets. Keeps on trying to make friends with them. Sooner or later that girl’s going to get herself bit. Hopefully not today.
I jump on the quad, gun the motor and head on over to the orchard to take a look.
As expected: Emmi. Sancho and Zorro have got her bailed up in an apple tree. Skinny legs dangling just out of reach of snarling muzzles. Funny, if I didn’t have work to do.
‘Maaarg!’ she wails.
‘As soon as I get you out of there, you’re getting your marching orders, darling,’ I mutter under my breath. Tears or no.
I call the dogs off. They respond to my command instantly, as always, but seem strangely agitated.
Emmi scoots down the trunk and points, tears running down her face, almost hysterical. She says something I don’t catch between the sobs. I follow the direction of her outstretched arm.
A distant mound of white with a patch of red. Then, ten metres further on, in the dry creek bed, another. Oh, God, no. I find myself running, Sancho and Zorro at my side.
Bright blood on white fur.
It’s Ferdi and Bella.
Something — or someone — has killed my dogs. My beautiful dogs.
I bury my face in Bella’s matted, dew-wet fur and completely lose it.
Chapter 2 – Tea with Aunty Glenda
‘We found hoof prints in the soft ground down by the creek. Wild pigs, a big mob. They came up in the night from the reedbeds and broke through the fence. After fallen apples in the orchard?
‘Bella and Ferdi stood their ground, as always. She took a tusk through the chest; he was all torn up, poor boy. Must have been one hell of a fight: I don’t understand how we didn’t hear it, over at the house … The other two dogs stayed with the sheep, thank God.’
I stop to wipe at my tears and blow my nose.
Glenda nods, grimaces, gives my arm a comforting pat. Pours me another cup of tea from the pot and pushes the plate of biscuits at me. The longcase clock in the hall strikes ten.
Glenda’s kitchen always smells a little musty, yet somehow clean. Fresh-cut herbs from the yard and a hint of woodsmoke. Well-scrubbed lino and old Formica. It’s a smell that I associate with age, peace and kindness. With Glenda. Today, a spray of autumn clematis in a vase on the mantel adds its perfume to the mix.
She was three years old when they came for her and her little brother. Skin a shade too pale, so her mother had to give them up. Glenda has a vague recollection of a woman’s wet, distraught face; of a voice crying, pleading, screaming.
Glenda and Roy never found out exactly who their parents were, but mum was probably a Wiradjuri woman from the Orange area.
At the children’s home near Nowra, they were told that she would come for them later; that she was a bad woman; that she didn’t want them; couldn’t look after them; was dead. The story drifted through the lonely, confusing years, shifting and intangible as smoke.
Stripped of family, culture and language, furnished with a basic education, they were pushed out into a hostile whitefella world at 15 to take their chances. It was called ‘resocialisation’.
Glenda is 87 now, and my neighbour. She and her Polish immigrant husband, Pawel, ran sheep on their 80 acres of rocky hillside and scrubby flat for many years. When Pawel died, seven years ago, Glenda leased the land to other farmers, keeping only the half-acre house block for herself.
She’s doing pretty well for an old chook: bustles around the place and still chops her own firewood. Her distance vision is failing, though, and she won’t be able to drive much longer. That will mean a move to sheltered housing in Mudgee or even distant Bathurst. A move which she resists. Fiercely.
A car trip with Glenda at the wheel is already hair-raising. The time she parked slap-bang in the middle of the flower bed outside the district nurse’s clinic is local legend.
Otherwise the old girl is as sharp as a tack, and a cuppa and a chat with Aunty Glenda is always entertaining and enlightening. She knows all the local gossip and is the genuinely wisest person I’ve ever met.
I was 14 years a barrister and have fenced with the sharpest minds in Sydney’s legal world. Glenda could give them all a run for their money.
‘… So we’ve moved the sheep and the other two dogs out of the orchard, for the time being. I’m going to put the word out around town for someone to come and hunt the pigs.’
Glenda tuts, shakes her head. ‘No. Keep this quiet, love.’
‘If you invite pig hunters on your place, local boys, you’ll never get rid of them. They’ll break fences, light campfires, get on the grog, make mischief. They’ll bring pig dogs — big, nasty mutts. You want the Johnson boys, Rick’s sons, on your property, pissed up, with rifles and dogs? Hanging around after your little German girlies? No, love. Keep this quiet around town.’
‘So how do I get rid of the pigs, Glenda?’
‘Get a pro. Someone who’ll do the job without a fuss.’
‘A professional hunter? I wouldn’t know where to start.’
‘I can ask Adam. My great nephew, Frank’s son. He lives over Lithgow way. He can do this for you, if he has time.’
‘Will it be expensive?’
I consider all of this. The first winter after I bought the grazed-out 150-acre property, I was often woken at night by spotlighters shooting rabbits. A few times, I found roo hunters driving across my land in broad daylight, like they owned it. They would bring two greyhounds to chase down the quarry and two Rottweilers or pitbulls to pin it down, while the hero with the rifle, bow or knife finished the poor animal.
Once word somehow got out that the city lady down at Forked Creek Farm was a top Gangland lawyer and a good pal of Chopper Read’s, they stopped coming. Sometimes a girl has to embellish her résumé to get a little respect.
No, I don’t want those bastards back. Not if I can help it.
Adam it is, then.
Chapter 3 – Meeting Adam
I’m not particularly looking forward to meeting Adam. I imagine some grimly enthusiastic gun nut: camouflage gear and the stench of blood. I don’t enjoy killing things, and I don’t like people who do.
There, it has been said.
As a barrister, I often saw the consequences of mixing guns, adrenaline and booze on some ill-conceived hunting trip. Nasty, bloody and occasionally fatal. Not just to the wildlife.
Then there was the case where a ‘pillar of the local community’ took a shotgun from his gun safe and blasted his wife and young kids to oblivion. Legal professionals develop a hard carapace, but there are still things that can pierce it.
So, I don’t exactly love guns and I can’t be doing with gun nuts.
Still, a farmer can’t be squeamish or sentimental. Pest control is an unpleasant task, but I don’t shirk it: witness my gun licence, shotgun and .22.
When I was a kid growing up on the NSW South Coast, Dad and I would shoot the occasional rabbit for the pot, and I’m still a reasonable shot, as the local foxes and rabbits have learned to their cost.
Feral pigs, though, are out of my league.
‘Hi, this is Adam Hawker. Aunty Glenda says you’ve got a pig problem.’
The voice on the phone is soft, boyish, friendly. Not such a bad start.
‘Look … I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job, but you know that there are people who will do this for free, don’t you?’
I explain to Adam my concerns about inviting the local yahoos to come shoot up my place. He laughs.
‘I get where you’re coming from … but Farm Assist can put you in touch with responsible shooters, properly insured, SSAA registered. You’d stay in control.’
‘So you’re saying you don’t want to take on the job?’
‘No, not what I’m saying at all. Just trying to save you a few bucks, Marg. Well, a couple of thousand bucks, to be honest, if I have to spend a few days up at your place. Aunty says you’re a mate, so …’
We arrange for Adam to come up to the farm tomorrow for an assessment. ‘I’ll come take a look for free and you can ask me anything you want. Try before you buy.’ That soft laugh again. ‘It’s time I visited Aunty, anyway.’
Adam turns out to be a tallish, slender man around the 30 mark. Unruly dark, curly hair, olive skin, fine features. Quick, brown, intelligent eyes. More Bondi surfer boy than bush pig shooter. He appraises the farm thoughtfully.
‘A lot different to how it was before Uncle Pawel died. Back then, this place was just dirt and sheep shit. Now, you’ve still got grazing at the end of a hot summer. The native grasses are coming back … and the old orchard is bearing again. Trees, bees, veggies, chooks, sheep, cattle … I’m impressed.’
‘Early days yet, but we’ve put a lot of work into rehydrating the land. The contour swales, the keyline dams, the revegetation. It’s all about putting water back into the landscape, stabilising the soil, capturing the rain instead of letting it run off, building humus.’
‘This will be the “crazy hippie shit” they mentioned down at the pub.’
‘That’ll be it. But as you can see — it works.’
‘Does it pay, though?’
I laugh. A little bitterly.
‘That’ll be a no, then.’
‘It’s never going to make me rich, put it that way. It’s been a long haul to get to where we are now — and I could have done with deeper pockets. But the farm now has about a hundred seasonal products coming off it, not just two or three.’
‘And about a hundred farm hands beavering away?’
‘Fifteen. And all but two are volunteers.’
‘No shit?’ Adam scratches his head in disbelief.
‘Plenty of shit, actually.’ I point at the ‘dunny’, the compost toilet shack. ‘And none of it leaves the property, it all goes back on the land.’
‘Yes, because the humanure is never used on crops for human consumption. It feeds the tagasaste windbreaks and the lucerne. In turn, they provide nitrogen-rich mulch, fodder for the dairy goats and beef cattle, and lots of flowers – great bee forage.’
‘Clever … And now the pigs have found this little slice of hog paradise.’
‘So it would seem. Never saw one up to now.’
‘There was nothing for them, before. Now that they know that there’s tucker here, they’ll keep coming … Plenty of them out there.’ He indicates the expanse of wetlands, downhill from my property, with their head-high reed beds.
‘They’ll come in overnight, clean up your veggies, your chooks, your new-born lambs. Knock over your beehives. Muddy your dams and smash up your fences.’
‘And they’re not scared of dogs, as I understand you’ve found out already.’
I must have winced.
‘Sorry, I can see that’s a little raw.’ He gives me a sympathetic little smile. ‘But there are things we can do to put them off.’
‘Put them off? I’d sooner wipe the bastards off the face of the Earth, frankly.’
‘I understand. But that’s not going to happen. Out in those reed beds, there will probably be a hundred pigs, maybe two. Five, ten sounders. Even with helicopters, dogs, bikes, 1080, traps, it’d take months to wipe them out.’
‘So, what can you do for me?’
‘Trap as many of this little mob as I can, for starters. Can’t use poison baits here because of your livestock … I don’t like using 1080 anyway.’
‘Not stalk them?’
‘No. Follow them into the reeds and you’ll kill maybe five animals, then the rest will scatter. But they’ll regroup and keep coming back to where the food is.
‘Pigs are a stubborn, clever animal. So what I’ll do is, remove the whole mob that have this, ah … inconvenient habit. Trap ’em, shoot ’em, then come back in a week and spotlight survivors. There might be 20 animals in the sounder.
‘Then it will be down to you to improve your fencing, before another mob moves in. Maybe change a few things around the place to make you less of a target. We can talk about that.
‘Meantime, I’ll keep coming back every few weeks over winter, check up on things. When there are no more pigs coming on to your land, we could get Farm Assist involved, organise a shoot in the wetlands, disrupt their peak breeding season. But no other shooters on your property: just me. That sound like a plan?’
It sounded like a plan.
Chapter 4 – Setting the Trap
Adam arrives on Monday ready for work, his battered Landcruiser pulling a trailer stacked with gear. I cajole him into joining us for lunch.
Lunchtime is the main social occasion of our farm life. I feed my workers well. Or rather: Rosa, our plump, cheery, dark-eyed cook, feeds them with opulent abundance.
She and the farm manager, Oliver — a tall, spare Canadian with a Wyatt Earp moustache — are the only two paid staff on Forked Creek Farm. Everyone else here, besides me, has come for a working holiday. They’re hoping to learn new skills and make new friends. It has to be a pleasant experience for them.
Illicit substances are not encouraged; excessive alcohol consumption is frowned upon. Harrassment or bullying will get you off my land before your feet can touch the ground. Otherwise, the young folk can party hard — as long as they work hard first.
To that end, I put a lot of thought into creating a social space for them, back in the early days. I had a big shearing shed that was no longer required, with the shift to polyculture and the consequent reduction of the flock.
Oliver and I transformed that tin-roofed weatherboard shack, with the help of our first enthusiastic volunteers.
The roof and walls were insulated, the slatted floor of the holding pens replaced by solid boards. Fallen timber was sawn on-farm (Lord bless the inventor of the Lucas Mill) to fashion a 10-metre refectory table and benches. A cast-iron potbelly stove was installed for the chilly winter nights. Old armchairs and a sofa were rescued from a house clearance.
Oliver, Rosa and I sleep in the farmhouse; the volunteers sleep in two gender-segregated yurts. Couples can get a little privacy in a dome tent or in the beat-up old caravan. Happily christened the Shaggin’ Waggon.
Everyone is free to use the farmhouse kitchen at breakfast time, as long as their boots and hands are clean. It’s lovely to be greeted by bright-eyed young things when this old girl, feeling every year of her ancient 47, staggers Medusa-haired out of her bedroom. The energy and resilience of the young never cease to amaze me.
At lunch in the shearing shed, Adam arouses interest, which he deals with pleasantly, but without giving much away. He listens politely to Emmi’s lecture on animal welfare; deftly avoids a dick-measuring contest with Texas Dan on hunting weaponry; shows genuine interest in Elsa’s Icelandic homeland and the finer points of Viking sheep.
After lunch he excuses himself to go and set up his pig traps. Oliver and I allocate the afternoon’s work, while today’s washing-up crew clatter with the pots and pans in the wash-up area.
All chores around the farm are done on a rota basis. Only Rosa and Oliver are exempt. The least popular chore is ‘dunny duty’: cleaning the toilets and replacing the big bins full of shit and sawdust. I pull my weight in all the chores. I believe in leadership from the front and besides: it’s fun.
As the shadow of the big redgum stretches across the home paddock, I hop on the quad and go see how Adam is getting on over at the orchard.
He has erected two weldmesh cages, chest high and about four by two metres, with a sturdy steel frame. The traps each have two drop doors, which slide vertically in two channels. When both are open, animals can pass through them freely. When both fall, the trap is sealed. They can be operated remotely or set to trip automatically, he shows me.
I help him to pile over-ripe fruit around the traps. ‘We need all this,’ he says, indicating two generous barrow-loads, ‘around the traps in piles. Inside and out. And we’ll need the same every night, for about a week. The rest of the windfall fruit around the orchard needs cleaning up.’ I promise to get someone on to the task right away.
The first stage is habituation, he explains. The pigs must get used to the traps’ presence in the orchard; then they need to forage freely around the traps and enter and leave them unhindered, with both doors open. This will take at least three nights, he reckons; maybe a lot longer. He has set up trail cameras to monitor the traps, so he can watch porcine goings-on through his phone overnight.
‘I start to trap pigs.’
‘How many are you expecting to get?’
‘Judging by the spoor down at the creek, there’s at least two breeding sows, one young litter and one half-grown. So about 12 pigs. And one real big old momma pig, the matriarch. Could be as big as 80, 90 kilos.’
‘Unlikely. They don’t hang around unless the girls are in heat. It will be the sows that killed your dogs. Get between a momma pig and her babies, and she’ll tear you up real good.’
‘So why such small traps, for so many pigs?’
Adam shrugs. ‘Couple of reasons.’
‘Sorry, not trying to question your competence. Just interested.’
‘Well, I could build a big old corral trap out of fencing panels and star pickets, like some farmers do. But — I have to carry all this gear around on my trailer. Put it all up and take it all down. And according to the regs, I’m supposed to kill each animal with a clean head shot. Difficult if they’re tearing around a hundred square metres, bouncing off the walls.’
‘So how do these farmers do it?’
‘Some don’t. They don’t give a rat’s about the regulations. Just keep shooting until they’re all dead.’
‘And you have to play by the rules — because you’re a licensed eradicator?’
‘Exactly. One complaint about animal cruelty, by some “concerned citizen” and I get an inspector breathing down my neck.’
‘What will you do with the piglets?’
‘That’s what the pump-action shotgun is for.’
I must have winced. Adam gives me a long, steady look. Appraising. ‘Make no mistake: this is going to be bloody. And some people will find it upsetting. It would be good to keep your little eco-warriors away while I’m dealing with the pigs. Give ’em jobs at the other end of the farm.’
Whoa there, Bucko.
‘That’s a bit patronising. They can handle the realities of farm life. They’re tougher than they look.’
Adam arches a brow.
‘Emmi? Javier? Sweet kids, but they’re idealists.’ He says the word with a sneer. It makes his face momentarily less beautiful, like a dark cloud passing over the sun.
I’m about to launch into a heated defence of Emmi and Javier — and of idealism in general— but I know full well that Adam has a point. I just don’t like anyone but me criticising my people.
Besides, I like to have the last word. You can take the barrister away from the Bar, but … So, let it pass, girl.
I shrug my shoulders. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Chapter 5 – After Dark
Adam declines the offer of a bed in the farmhouse. He prefers to set up his rooftop tent on the Landcruiser. It looks cosy, if basic.
After dinner, Oliver and I withdraw to the office to discuss the week’s deliveries to restaurants down in Mudgee, Orange and Bathurst. We also have an agent over in Sydney, who collects veggie boxes, eggs and meat packs from us on Fridays, for distribution to urban households.
By selling to consumer ‘farm clubs’, not to wholesale, we get a fair price for our produce, while subscribers get top-quality, farm-fresh produce. ‘Paddock to Plate’ resonates with ethical-minded Sydneysiders.
Later, business done, we wander up the hill to the campfire by the shearing shed. It’s a mild, still evening and everyone is sitting out under the stars.
Someone is singing an old Redgum song, ‘The Diamantina Drover’, softly but tunefully. The figures silhouetted against the flames, the faces fire-lit in ruddy chiaroscuro are a flickering tableau. Sparks rise into the night sky.
As we come closer, I realise that it’s Adam singing and playing guitar. Texas Dan is accompanying him on djembe and Elsa is filling in hesitantly on harmonica.
The quiet Chilean couple, Valentina and Carla, are snuggled up together, smiling and shooting shy glances at the musicians. Emmi is perched on a log, knees drawn up to her chin, watching with a half-smile, eyes shining strangely in the firelight. A little Germanic pixie.
‘Alright, Marg? ’right, Ollie?’ London Dan greets us cheerily. The way he does everything.
He plunges his tattooed arm into the bucket of ice water and hands us each a dripping bottle of beer. I twist the cap off, clink with Oliver and let the cool liquid slip down my throat.
The joy of the moment. It almost takes my breath away. So happy and proud to be here, now, with these people.
I haven’t felt this good for a while. It’s easy to be consumed by the day-to-day, hour-to-hour stress and hard yakka of running a complex farming operation.
Then it’s back: the grief over Bella and Ferdi, the tight feeling in my chest when I think about the pigs, the threat they represent. This little enterprise is resilient in some ways, but so fragile in others. We operate on slim margins; I can see the day looming when I’ll have to go back to legal work. We really don’t need this.
Javier’s soft Spanish voice gradually impinges on my thoughts. He’s asking me something. I shake my head apologetically and ask him to repeat. We chat for a while about the tomato harvest. It’s going to be a good one. Rosa is all set up for a passata marathon.
It is, after all, only Monday, so most of the young folk drift off to bed by 9.30, leaving a few stragglers to tend the fire. Oliver yawns, stretches and bids the dwindling company adieu. He lopes off towards the house, the beam of the headlamp bouncing back and forth with his gait until he disappears round the corner of the shed.
Emmi seems to be giving Adam an ear bashing again. She is talking at him earnestly, quietly, gesticulating. He smiles and shakes his head, gazing into the dying glow of the embers. Well, I guess he’s old enough to look out for himself.
I say goodnight to the pair, reminding her pointedly that the layer hen A-frame shelter (aka ‘eggmobile’) and its 500 feathered occupants will need moving to new grazing tomorrow. Emmi is in charge of setting up the Feathernet electric fencing before breakfast.
I wake from a vague, frustrating dream to find the dark bedroom stuffy and my hair a sweaty tangle. 12.35 a.m. I wrap myself in my old towelling robe and shuffle out to the kitchen to pour a glass of water from the tap.
Outside the back door, the crickets are calling me into the warm night. I step outside, enjoying the breeze on my bare legs. Further away, in the dams and the swales, froglets are ticking and marsh frogs tocking.
Faint voices from over beyond the shearing shed. Laughter. A couple of night owls still at the campfire?
I wouldn’t mind company right now, so I pull on my workboots and take a torch. Threadbare dressing gown and Blundstones might not be a good look, but hey — who cares? I stomp up the hill, sweeping the ground with the torch beam, alert for snakes.
I find the fireplace dark and deserted. I’m about to head down to the big dam, listen to the frog chorus. Then Adam’s rooftop tent, next to the shearing shed, is suddenly illuminated from within. A soft feminine giggle; Adam’s deeper voice. Silhouettes through the canvas. I turn away — none of my business.
A startled little ‘Oh,’ as Emmi rounds the corner of the shearing shed and almost collides with me. Then ‘Night, Marg!’ as she regains composure and strides off to the women’s yurt. Do I detect a triumphant sashay in those skinny little hips?
Emmi, Adam? Really?
Am I concerned for the naïve young woman? Disappointed that Adam turns out to be just another bloke, out for an opportunistic root? Okay, so there may be a double standard in there, somewhere …
Or am I just jealous?
Chapter 6 – Under the Skin
I don’t have much to do with Adam for a couple of days. It suits me fine.
He checks the traps as soon as the sun is up, texts me a terse progress report, then takes himself off for the day. I know that he visits Glenda daily, and I assume he has other business to attend to in the area.
He shows up for evening meals, exchanges a few polite but non-committal words, then disappears in the direction of the orchard. No more music, no more beer; no more intense conversations round the campfire.
Emmi seems to have been given the brush-off and sulks around the place with a face like a slapped arse.
I sense that group opinion has turned against the newcomer. Soft, sweet Javier is almost antagonistic when he and Adam come together. My young people look out for one another — even as they recognise each other’s failings.
Of all the WWOOFers, the two Dans seem most inclined to maintain the entente cordiale. They’re in charge of the beef-cattle cell grazing, which is in the outlying paddocks these warm autumn weeks, enriching the soil with dung. A couple of times I see them and Adam from afar, chatting and laughing. I think they admire him, respect his experience and knowledge.
On Thursday morning, Adam asks me to join him up at the orchard after breakfast.
‘One more night of free tucker for our little piggy friends, then I’ll start trapping and shooting.’
‘What happens to the carcasses? Can we use the meat?’
‘I wouldn’t — not in your position, as a livestock farmer.’
‘Why not? It seems an awful waste.’
‘I understand, really I do. Breaks my heart to see all that prime meat go to waste …’
‘But there’s a good chance these pigs are infected with brucellosis.’
‘If I just shoot them and we dispose of the carcasses without cutting — no real problem. But as soon as we start dressing carcasses, and worse still, butchering, we run the risk of cross-species infection.
‘Mostly your dogs and anyone handling the pigs — but sheep, goats, cattle, they’re all at risk, in theory. It’s just not worth it. That’s my advice, anyhow.’
‘Okay, if that’s your advice, I’d be stupid not to take it.’
‘Glad you see it that way.’
I consider for a moment.
‘Can I ask you a question?’
‘Course,’ he smiles. ‘Fire away.’
‘Do you enjoy this job?’
‘Well … that is a question.’
‘Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.’
’No, it’s okay … I look at it like this: I’m sort of helping to heal the land. Does that sound crazy?’
‘No, not crazy at all.’
‘This land, my ancestors’ country — my country — it’s been abused for 230 years. Trashed.
‘We’ve got feral dogs, horses, cats, goats, pigs, rabbits, foxes, deer — you name it — eating up the land. Killing the native animals, taking away their food, their water, their homes.
‘So yeah, I guess I enjoy my job. I enjoy doing it. Even if it feels like I’m pissing into the wind most of the time.
‘It’s not that I hate the pigs, you understand. They’re just trying to live. It’s the people who brought ’em here, then let ’em go. Those are the ones. The ones …’
‘… that you hate?’
He nods. Turns away.
‘I’m sorry, Adam.’
He looks back at me, grins. ‘What in hell are you sorry about, Marg Jansen? Have you been letting pigs go in the bush?’
’No, but my ancestors would have been part of the problem. I may be a city lawyer, but I come from five generations of farmers.’
He shakes his head. ‘You aren’t to blame, Marg. I mean, look at me.’ He points to his face. ‘Do you see a proud, black, Aboriginal man?’
I shrug. He laughs at my embarrassment. ‘Come on! Have the guts to say it. Never mind all the PC bullshit. No, you don’t.’
I shake my head.
‘Half of my ancestors were white Europeans. Scottish, English and I-don’t-know-what. At least half. The ones I know of were decent men and women. Hard-working, honourable. I’m proud to be descended from them.
‘The ones further back, my great grandfathers and beyond … who knows? Maybe they were good men too. But maybe they weren’t, know what I’m saying?’
‘But anyway, I guess what I’m getting round to here is this: I can’t blame you. That would make me a hypocrite. If you’re to blame, because of your ancestry, so am I.’
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Are you mad at me because of Emmi?’
That one came out of left field.
‘I … wasn’t too impressed, put it that way.’
‘I thought so,’ he nods to himself.
’And nothing. Just wondered.’
And with that, he turns and saunters off up the paddock.
Infuriating just isn’t strong enough a word.
Chapter 7 – The Prank
Sunrise through the sheokes. I sit on the porch, nursing a mug of coffee, and enjoy the warmth of the rays on my face.
A magpie family alights on the fence and carols, announcing its clan’s strength and territorial right. Maybe also hoping for a few tidbits from the human, who seems to like this sort of thing.
Up in the big River Red Gum, a kookaburra winds himself up to a mad peal of laughter, answered in kind by his spouse. Over on the far hillside, a mob of kangaroos hops through the dewy paddock, stopping occasionally to graze, ears turning warily.
Trudging footsteps break my reverie. It’s Adam, wearing an old Driza-Bone, gumboots and not much else. A wet towel round his neck. The overall effect would be comical and rather fetching, except for one thing.
He’s looking seriously pissed off.
‘I can’t find my car keys.’
‘Oh?’ I look him up and down with an expression which is intended to convey: And this is my problem because … ?
Adam is too angry to notice. ‘They were in my pocket when I went in the shower. When I came out, they weren’t there.’
‘You’re saying someone took your car keys, then.’
Marg — stop being a cow.
‘That’s right, Marg. Someone took my car keys. My car keys that I keep on me at all times — because the key to my gun safe is on the same fob.’
‘Oh shit is right. I’ve got a pump-action shotgun, a .303 and a semi-automatic rifle in my vehicle, and ammunition for all three of them locked in the glove box. Category D guns. If we don’t find the keys in fifteen minutes, I’m going to have to ask you to call the police.’
That gets my attention. I call Oliver and we scramble the whole crew to look for Adam’s keys. Every inch of ground between the Landcruiser and the shower block is scoured. Adam is asked time and again about his exact movements. Breaking the window of the car and busting the lock on the gun safe with a crowbar is suggested.
Twenty minutes pass.
There’s a shout from the shithouse. Texas Dan.
‘Think I’ve found them, buddy — but we’re gonna need a long-handled shovel.’
Wearing disposable gloves and an expression of disgust, Adam takes his stinky keys, and quickly verifies that the guns and ammo are still where they’re supposed to be.
The WWOOFers, some of them still sleep-fuddled and in PJs, hang around like a mob of sheep waiting for a Border Collie, then shuffle off in various directions.
‘The pig killer probably dropped them while he was taking his morning shit,’ I hear Javier smirk, to no-one in particular.
Except he didn’t.
I feel terrible for Adam. This is beyond a prank: it’s an act of hatred. I grab an old toothbrush, a plastic bag and disinfectant from the house, and take them up to the Landcruiser. I offer to clean the keys myself, but he declines.
His gentle, handsome face is cold, hard and mean.
It’s not a look which sits well on him, and it doesn’t fully convince. I sense that if I wrapped him in a hug, he’d cry like a little boy. But hey — let’s leave us both some dignity.
I stomp back to the farmhouse and ask Oliver to get all the WWOOFers together in the shearing shed immediately. To drop what they’re doing right now, because I have something important to say.
A short time later, the little company is assembled.
‘Adam Hawker is here to do a job for me,’ I begin. ‘It’s not a pleasant job, but it’s one that needs to be done. I understand that some people here feel otherwise.’ I glare in a few specific directions.
‘If you disagree with the way that I run my farm, you can come and discuss your concerns with me. I welcome your input — but you must know that the final decision in all matters rests with me and my paid staff: Oliver, Rosa — and at the moment, Adam. If you have a problem with that, you are welcome to leave. Do you understand?’
Nods and murmurs of assent.
‘Good. Now, one more thing before I let you go and get on with your day.
‘You know how I feel about bullying. To take someone’s personal possessions and dump them in a bin full of shit is bullying. It is a vile, cowardly insult — and will not be tolerated on this farm. The person who did this is not welcome here, and can kindly pack their bags and leave. Today.’
As I look at the puzzled, concerned, hurt faces of these young people I adore, I feel the white-hot anger leaving me, along with the courtroom confidence.
‘Please,’ I mumble, ‘we are better than this.’
I make it out of the door before the first sobs shake my body.
Oliver comes to find me down by the big dam. He sits beside me on the rough-hewn bench. We gaze out over the lily pads in silence.
‘Don’t you think you’re taking this rather too much to heart, Marg?’ he asks softly at length.
I consider this for a while. It has been a tough week and I’m a little over-wrought. Maybe we all are. Nevertheless: this will not do.
With the disruption to the morning schedule, it’s a scramble to get the deliveries ready. I help out in the packing shed, where the two newbies, Alice and Sanjit from Darwin, are learning the ropes under Elsa’s supervision. Packing the veggie boxes and the meat coolers is a good way to familiarise newcomers with our full range of produce and how our business model works.
We end up working through lunch, and so it’s mid-afternoon when I learn that Emmi and Javier have left the farm.
No goodbyes, no thankyous; no confessions, no tears. Just a terse conversation with Oliver in which ‘incompatible ethics’ were mentioned, then off up the dirt track in Emmi’s sun-peeled, red Mitsubishi wagon, leaving a cloud of dust.
Chapter 8 – Closing Balance
Sunday morning starts cool and overcast. For the first time this year, it really feels like autumn. Day doesn’t break: it just arrives, sullen and reluctant. Kookaburra sits quietly in the grey nondescript dawn.
I’m sitting on my porch wrapped in a blanket, cradling a coffee, wondering how the trapping is going. The answer comes soon enough.
The crack of the .303 makes me jump. Choughs flap off in noisy black-and-white alarm.
Rosa joins me on the porch steps, gives me a nudge with her shoulder and an encouraging smile. ‘It will soon be over, hun. Then we can get back to life as normal.’
I nod, mute for once.
Four more rifle shots at irregular intervals over the ensuing minutes. Then shotgun blasts that seem to go on and on, echoing around the hills. I lose count at ten. Shiver and pull my blanket closer.
After breakfast, I decline Adam’s invitation to go and inspect the corpses. Three sows, five half-grown young pigs, seven month-old piglets, he tells me. He thinks there may be three young adult pigs from the sounder which evaded the box traps. ‘They’ll be trap-shy now and difficult to catch … but we may never see ’em again, anyhow.’
The Two Dans use the backhoe to dig a two-metre deep trench near the lower fence of the orchard. They’ll shovel the bodies in, then spread hydrated lime and bury them. Quick and neat, no handling.
For the first time since Adam’s arrival, I take myself off to see Glenda.
She receives me at the back door with a hug, puts the kettle on. I don’t really feel like tea, but I let her bustle anyway, while I give my — or rather Adam’s — progress report.
‘Good, love,’ she nods vigorously. ‘That boy’s a hard worker. It’s been nice, having him here this week. Did you see he fixed up the front veranda? Patched the tin roof where I had rain coming in, and replaced those two broken boards.’
She glances at me. ‘He’s not much of a talker, as a rule … Had a lot to say about you, though.’
‘Yes.’ She nods to herself. ‘About how you fixed up that old place … You run that team of young’uns like the strictest footy coach he’s ever known, he says.’
‘Oh crap. I’m not that bad, am I?’
Glenda’s eyes are twinkling. ‘I don’t think he was criticising, love. Singing your praises, more like.’
‘Course, I told him you were too old for him.’
‘Thanks for that.’
‘You’re welcome, love. A mature, 47-year-old lady doesn’t want to be bothering with no 33-year-old boys, I told him. Got more important things on her mind.’
‘No, that’s right.’ Glenda, you are a mischievous old baggage.
‘So … that Emmi with the swishy hair and the flounce, and that pretty young Spanish boy have taken off, I hear.’
‘That’s right. Yesterday arvo.’
‘She was a handful, that one.’
‘You’re not wrong there, Glenda.’
‘Tried to climb in his bed, one night,’ she chuckles. ‘He was mightily amused by the whole shenanigans. Sent her off to her own swag. Nicely, of course — the boy’s got manners.’
I’m incredulous. Glenda takes a look at my face and bursts out laughing. ‘Ain’t much that boy don’t tell his Great Aunt Glenda … The look on your face, girl! Stunned mullets ain’t in it. Don’t let your tea get cold, now.’
Aunty Glenda, you are a caution … and Adam, you are a damned dark horse.
When I get back to the farm, I’m told that Adam is still up at the orchard, dismantling his traps. As I arrive, he’s just strapping down the trailer.
‘Got a job over in Orange this coming week, but I’ll come by some time the week after, if that’s okay? See how things are getting on?’
‘Meantime, I’ll email you my invoice.’
‘Thanks. And thank you so much for … all this.’ I wave at the newly filled trench.
‘Can we walk?’
He arches that brow at me again. Shrugs. ‘Sure.’
What in hell are you doing, Marg Jansen? Could this be any more awkward?
I chatter about the bush regeneration project as we walk up the hill, affecting to ask his opinion about the species we’re planting as tubestock. He offers a couple of observations. We look at the infant Ironbark and Scribbly Gum woodland.
I find myself reaching out to touch his face. Surprised, he almost flinches away, but catches himself. He takes my hand in his, presses it to his soft cheek. Kisses the heel of my palm. Looks me in the eye.
‘You sure pick your moments, Marg.’
‘Well, I’m not a wine and candle-lit dinners kind of girl.’
Sometimes, you have to seize the day. Even if the day is impossibly grotesque.
‘No, I can see that,’ he responds. ‘More a trench-of-dead-hogs kind of girl.’
That cracks us both up.
‘Look … I’m coming back soon. Then we’ll see how we feel. That alright?’
I nod. We walk back down the hill, arm in arm. Giggling.
Text and images © 2021 Steve Fendt unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.