The bushwhackers [by P. R. Stephensen]

[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]

The bushwhackers

When Bill and Jim Darley landed in Australia, they were astonished most by the tallness of the trees. Great smooth shining white temple-columns, the gumtrees, seemed to stretch in aisles immensely conceived for distances inconceivable. The air was very clear and dry. The trees were stripped of that shrouding light which clings to trees in England, deepening to a hazy cloak in Winter, but always there, softening outline. So Bill and Jim Darley blinked, and tilted their heads upwards, to squint at the gum-leaves glinting edgeways in the sun’s white light. Then the brothers squinted in turn at one another uneasily and said:

“Tall trees!”

“Aye, very tall.”

But all the same they were happy to be alone, out in the wide Bush, at the opposite pole from civilisation; and as they weren’t afraid to work, having hailed from Devon, they soon got quite used to the tall trees escalading the sun, and they moved about in the bush like acolytes in a temple, who have more to do than to keep on gaping at the architecture around and above them. And so Bill and Jim Darley became settlers. They took up land in the virgin bush, on the oldest continent above water; land which had never known cultivation since it formed on the earth’s crust before Europe and Asia had formed; land which had lain basking in hot sun, undisturbed by the insect, man; land waiting for them, lying in wait for them.

So they felled a tree to make themselves a home of planks.

Then they felled more trees, to make posts and rails for fences to keep their cattle from straying.

Then they felled more trees to make a and they grubbed out the wide stumps and burning and blasting away the encumbering wood, to ease the plough; and they began to prosper, for the earth was astonished at such attentions, and yielded, as a virgin yields, in pained innocence.

Abundant crops grew, but soon the Darleys wearied of growing crops for crops’ sake. Money is not given in exchange for food in a land of plenty. And the Darleys, being Englishmen, wanted money. So they stopped growing miraculous vegetables and fruits on their cultivated patch, and put more and more cattle to feed on the rich grasslands of the open forest on their Selection. Cattle, and the produce of cattle, can be exported, for money, to lands, like the Home Land, which are hungry. Thus the cattle multiplied, and the Darleys prospered, and they kept putting more and more cattle to graze upon the grasses of the fertile bush.

Happy days!

When rain-clouds, heavy from the Pacific Ocean, came sailing over the Bushland, a stream of cold-air, spiralling from the tall trees, would bring the condensed moisture crashing down to slake the earth’s thirst. Sheets of rain! And the creeks would run full to their high banks, and overflow their banks, and spread water into the swamps, where frogs croaked happily amongst water-lilies. There the Darleys would ride after the rain had stopped, watching the new green grass growing, where the cattle, heads down and greedy, glutted themselves for killing. More cattle, more money; more grass, more cattle — so reasoned the Darleys, as the freshened grass waved about the bellies of the herds; and they added more young steers to the mob for fattening, more and more cattle, more and more money . . .

And more grass ? . . .

Temporarily, after the rain.

But the grass did not come to seeding. As fast as it grew, it was eaten to the roots. The Darleys overstocked the land, and then blamed the land when the grass thinned out.

“It’s the trees! Taking all the moisture from the earth!”

“Aye, it’s the trees.”

So they blasted the tall trees with axes. They whacked the bush, greedy for grass. Hundreds of thousands of great trees were ring-barked, the sap cut off in its channel from the roots to the lofty tops; and they withered, and died where they stood.

Happy days! When the bushwhackers were whacking the bush — before the bush started whacking the bushwhackers.

When the trees died, the green grass grew all around, like the old song. What the trees had taken from the old earth, the grass now took, and the cattle ate the grass, and men ate the cattle, and the Darleys made Money, which was the idea. And the great gaunt skeletons of the dead trees stood bare in the paddocks, pointing like sign-posts to the hot sky. And no rain came, and the grass browned, and the cattle became angular and scraggy.

Drought.

Clouds passed, high up, raised on currents of hot air from the dusty earth. The Darleys cursed the clouds. All their neighbours, for hundreds of miles around, who had blasted the bush in the same way as the Darleys, cursed the clouds.

But they had to wait till over-heavy monsoon clouds, laden with electricity, burst of their own accord over the Bush, crashing blobs of water upon the soil. And the Darleys sat and listened to the torrents spattering upon their iron roof, and were saved.

Floods.

The creeks, which had almost vanished, deep in banks of earth, rose thunderously in yellow swirling growls as the water streamed off the hills, washing with it the loosened topsoil, no longer held firm by living roots of the trees.

After the floods, fences had to be repaired, lots of cattle had been drowned.

“Droughts and floods, that’s all!”

“Aye, just eating up our money.”

Nevertheless, the green grass grew again, for the water had freshened the earth; and the Darleys re-stocked the paddocks heavily. But this time the grass did not grow up to the flanks of the cattle, as it used to do. The moisture which had fallen, such of it as did not flood away into the creeks, began to sink deeper and deeper below the surface; for no firm roots of great trees sucked it upwards; and the grass-roots do not go deep. So again the Darleys began watching the coppery sky. Cattle-prices dropped, for everybody began selling to thin out the herds. So the Darleys hung on and hoped for more rain.

Worse drought.

Then worse floods.

Hope springing, hope dying; impotent curses; the Bush whacking the bushwhackers. Roaring fires sweeping the land for hundreds of miles during the dryest time of drought once set hundreds of thousands of dried tree-skeletons ablaze, from which burning torches crashed in red violence upon the earth, malignant. Then the next day the two Darleys, with not a square inch of grassland left in all their paddocks, put the best of their cattle out to agistment in paddocks beyond the burned-out belt; and they shot the rest of their beasts, to sell the hides. As they skinned the corpses in the midst of their blackened land, the rain came suddenly, and the green grass grew again, and the Darleys hoped again.

Worse floods, and then worse droughts. Each flood washed away more of the topsoil, each drought seared the grasses, and drove the water deeper. The tree-skeletons, gaunt, raised their fingers menacingly, and the Darleys grew afraid of Australia. The creeks and swamps and lagoons began to dry up utterly in drought-time; so the Darleys had to sink wells, even to water their cattle. Their banking account sank, as the wells were sunk. Then in optimism, when rain came, they installed milking-machines, and began dairying intensively — and they mortgaged their land to the bank to borrow money to make these improvements with these and other improvements, such as windmills on the wells, troughs for the cattle, a bigger house for themselves, a motor-car. And always the Darleys hoped that the land would reward them, and relied upon the land, and didn’t realise that money from a mortgage is hard money to enjoy: gambler’s money to spend upon the whacked bush; retributory money.

After twenty years’ work on their selection, the two Darleys, hardened like whipcord, lines wrinkled around their eyes, desiccated browned men, lay on their backs smoking and thinking hard one night in the midst of their seventh drought. Above them, the stars blazed whitely in thin air. One constellation, only half visible above the northern horizon, attracted their attention.

“Charles’ Wain!”

“Aye, upside down!”

Thoughts of Devon, where Charles’ Wain is right-side up, and where grass is green, and trees are leafy, and soil is always moist, came heavily upon the exiles. The War to end War had just begun.

“I’m goin’ to volunteer. Blast this country!”

“Aye, blast this country. So’m I!”

So Bill and Jim Darley left the whacked bush behind them, and returned half-way round the earth, to see Devon again, and to forget the scarifying bush, and droughts, and floods, for a time.

They were both killed by the same minnenwerfer in France, and the bank had to foreclose on the mortgage; and perhaps some of the tuneful Welsh miners singing in London streets would like to go out to Australia and take up the Darley’s deserted land, now. It can be had from the bank for a song.



Source:
P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, [1929], pp. 7-19

Editor’s notes:
dryest = an uncommon spelling of driest

minnenwerfer = (German “mine launcher”, usually spelt “minenwerfer”) a class of German short range mortars (trench mortars) used during World War One

the war to end war = (also rendered as “the war to end all wars”) a phrase that refers to World War One

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