Survival in the wide brown land (Mar/Apr 08)

Friday, 01 April 2011 18:03

Every Australian schoolchild learns Dorothy Mackellar's poem My Country. We can all recite,

I love a sunburnt country,

A land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges,

Of droughts and flooding rains.

I love her far horizons,

I love her jewel sea,

Her beauty and her terror,

The wide brown land for me.

Australia is a land which can defeat and destroy those who try to force it to be fruitful. Last December a drought which has lasted for ten years was interrupted, not just by rain, but by torrents of rain which produced wild floods, destroying livestock, fences, roads, bridges and buildings. Farmers who in the drought were barely surviving saw what little they owned swept away by the floods.

Land in Australia is little suited to the English farming methods which have been imposed on it for the last two hundred years. As a result, much of the farming land is no longer fertile. Even without the drought, many farmers were struggling to make a livelihood. The suicide rate amongst Australian farmers is four times the national average. Despite government funded initiatives to support farmers financially through a difficult time, and to offer support from the mental health services, the suicide rate remains high. The problem seems to be the farmers themselves.

There is general agreement among those who know farmers well that they are hard-working and conscientious. They might enjoy a yarn over a beer with their mates, but this yarning is entirely in the masculine style of imparting information to one another. Nothing personal is ever discussed, and feelings are never mentioned. To do so would reveal the weakness that shows that you are not a real man.

All this is known, and farmers' wives try to push their silent, troubled menfolk to see a counsellor, but farmers have an unlimited store of good, practical reasons why they can't waste time talking to a stranger.

The problem of the high rate of depression and suicide amongst farmers is widely acknowledged and discussed in the media, but I've not come across any explanation as to why so many strong, silent, good men without warning kill themselves. Yet it is easily found if we look at how we create our sense of being a person.

Our sense of being a person is what we call 'I', 'me', 'myself'. We see our sense of being a person as having certain attributes. Some of these attributes we regard as being fairly trivial. We can discard these easily as our circumstances change, but other attributes seem to be absolutely central to our being. When our circumstances threaten to reveal that we actually lack the attributes in which we take most pride, it can seem to us that the only way to continue being the person we know ourselves to be is to die. This is the reasoning behind great acts of heroism. Since its inception, every winner of the Victoria Cross who survived has given, one way or another, the same reason for his bravery in action, 'It I hadn't done what I could to save my fellow soldiers I couldn't have lived with myself.' Suicide results from the same kind of reasoning.

Farmers see themselves as strong, practical, problem-solving men, capable of dealing with the variability of the climate, of world produce markets, and of the ecology of their land. To fail is to be weak, and to be weak is to be unmanly. If you've built your whole identity on these attributes, what do you do when the Australian continent behaves as it always does, with complete indifference to its inhabitants? Whether you're man, or beast, or insect, in Australia you either adapt or die.

When we seriously contemplate killing ourselves, what we are actually doing is trying to force reality to be what we want it to be. Reality, whether it is the Australian continent or not, never conforms to our wishes. We can choose to feel shamed or despairing because we cannot make reality do what we want and, in a desperate gesture, throw away our life. Or we can waste our whole life trying to get from reality something it can never give, such as trying to get from an unloving parent a declaration of their love for us. Or we can adapt in clever, creative ways to what reality has to offer, such as accepting the indifference of our parent and offering our love to those who know its value and will return it. To do the last we need to redefine the person we know ourselves to be.

Some Australian farmers are redefining themselves. Instead of trying to force their land to do what they want, they are learning new ways of farming which understand and co-operate with the beauty and the terror of the wide brown land.