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Love in the bush

Love, land and money. Each by itself does not make for happiness, but taken together they stir passions through lives and across generations in the heartland of Australia where emotions are entwined with the land and its industry. Just as a drought-shrivelled earth flourishes when the water arrives, the human spirit is enriched by love and kindness.

Story by Jane Milburn

It is a challenge asking country people to talk about their relationships. Doubly so when the big dry is biting into much of the land, and their emotional and physical energy is focused on that.

Country people generally don’t have much time for the airy fairy, pondering of feelings and emotions. They’re busy dealing with big issues such as droughts, pests and isolation.

Their effort is directed towards maintaining stock water and feed supplies, dealing with the paperwork burden of new laws and taxes, working out ways to educate their children, and seeking new and more profitable marketing options.

“Farmers tend to be less focused on the self, and the emotions, because there is always something that needs attention around the farm,” says fourth-generation wool grower Andrew Burgess from Ruby Hills at Walcha on the New England Tablelands of New South Wales.

“It’s easy to get absorbed in the farm work, and it takes strong mental discipline to extract yourself from that work and focus on family matters.”

Farming is a way of life, not a job with set hours. But actually separating business and personal life is a difficult thing to do when business is conducted in the kitchen.

Andrew and his wife, Carol Watson, say business requires being unemotional, task-based and performance oriented, whereas the family life requires emotional input, caring and sharing, and nurturing during your lifetime.

Across the country, one of the biggest stresses on family relationships is caused by the drought which has hovered over most areas for years, with only occasional and short-term breaks in this omnipotent threat to rural livelihoods.

AgForce drought coordinator Rod Saal says the country people he deals with are an incredibly resilient group, but the human relationships and partnerships are a really important element of life that need tending.

“The selection process has already happened and those that are still in the bush have been tested by its cold, harsh realities. They’re wonderful, hardy people whose human spirit armour-plates them for the tough times,” Rod says.

“They’ve got humour, loyalty, and such a generosity of spirit that they’ll give you their last tea bag.”

But he says the social capital, the relationships between people, ought not be ignored in the pressure to meet the demands of increasing workloads often compounded by drought.

Although the relaxed social life of tennis parties and leisurely picnics disappeared from the country in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they have been replaced by social activities which also are productive.

“Activities fostered by the Landcare movement for example provide useful group and social interaction where people get together to discuss ways of making their lives and properties better,” Rod says.

The faith element is still important in country lives, says Charleville-based United Church Reverend John Case who spends half his year travelling in the 300,000 sq km Burke and Wills Patrol for the church’s Frontier Services.

“What surprises me is the positiveness of most people. They will joke that they’re one day closer to rain, or tell me I’ve not been praying hard enough because it hasn’t rained yet.”

“Most of my work is providing spiritual guidance, listening to people express their concerns. I don’t come across a lot of depression but there is increasing loneliness in the bush because there are fewer people living and working in these areas compared with 20 years ago.”

For more than a decade, Professor Daniela Stehlik has studied farming families experiencing drought and the implications of stress and changes.

Drought puts relationships to the test, says Daniela, who heads the Alcoa Research Centre for Stronger Communities at Western Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, and men and women respond differently.

She says wives have anxiety for their men and think about external ways they can help the business keep going by getting work off-farm or creating another form of income on the property.

Husbands see themselves in the breadwinner role and when there’s no income due to drought, this impacts heavily on their sense of identity.

Wagga Wagga-based Charles Sturt University researcher Ian Coldwell is studying rural masculinity and the socio-economic impacts on the identity of young farmers.

He agrees that men very much shape their identities around the work that they do, and the constant and looming threat of drought has a strong influence on them and their family relationships.

“Drought is driving all aspects of rural life in terms of the way farmers’ farm and how they mix with the community. It affects how they feel about themselves and how they relate to their spouse and kids,” Ian says.

“In drought, farmers tend to withdraw from community activities, retreat to the farm and don’t want to talk about their situation which rural counsellors say is a negative behaviour that can lead to the onset of depression.

“Women often now have off-farm jobs – either because they want to or have to – and although the majority work part-time, this can leave the men isolated and trying to run the farms on their own. They feel more isolated when things are tough than when things are going well.”

Rod Saal says because rural small business is under pressure, there needs to be recognition of the value of financial counselling because people do have problems with depression, debt, drought and suicide despite their overall resilience.

“The benefits of supporting people in the regions far outweigh the costs that government invests in providing another tool (farm financial counselling) for people in the bush to access so they can continue to be viable.

“People need to know that there are always options, always somewhere to turn, and part of my work involves facilitating family decision-making about those options.

“When they encounter difficult situations, often the first person they stop talking to is their spouse – males are particularly bad at that – and what they need to do is talk through the issues to work out a way forward.”

Daniela Stehlik says the long-term impacts of drought are on the depletion of community resources in rural Australia.

Her research in Queensland and New South Wales in the late 1990s and more recently in Western Australia shows that as neighbours decide to put up the ‘for sale’ sign and leave adjoining properties, many small community stores are closed and many services no longer available.

She says the lessons from the 10-year drought experienced along much of the eastern seaboard have been heeded in Western Australia, where the Department of Agriculture drought-declared 12 shires in August and many more are likely to be drought-declared before Christmas 2006.

“There is a big message here in terms of climate change and the implications of continued lack of rain and increasing temperatures on land usage by farm families in the wheat belt of Western Australia.

“Human beings are adaptable, but in Western Australia we are facing rapid change on a number of fronts which is bringing pressure to bear on communities and families.

“A lot of farmers in the great southern region are original settlers now aged in their 60s or older, but these families are not necessarily planning succession from fathers to sons or daughters as happened last century.

“Women express their concerns about who their sons will marry, wondering what girl would want to marry their son and come out into this environment and do this hard work?”

It was while working with professional farmers in regional Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria that Paul McGrath and his colleague John Roydhouse noticed the lost and lonely social situations facing many people in the bush.

Paul says this loneliness is the consequence of reduced extended-family influence, family break-ups, and a lack of money within communities to run social events and support social networks.

This led them to create the www.hunksnspunks.com.au online dating service in 2003 to enable people in rural and regional Australia to meet potential partners and make social connections.

“It emerged as a result of our desire to provide an easy, practical and affordable means of creating social opportunities and helping people link into a social network for unattached rural and regional Australians,” Paul says.

“That’s really what hunksnspunks is about. It wasn’t designed as a money spinner, but rather as a community service providing a modern social network that helps people connect and build relationships with others who have similar interests.”

“I had gone through a divorce and knew what it felt like to be financially and socially limited, and that motivated John and I to work out a way to create a network that was cheap and accessible.”

So has hunks n spunks worked for Paul? “The romantic bit hasn’t worked for me on a ‘find a wife’ level because my lifestyle doesn’t suit that at the moment, but I have developed some enduring friendships with people I’ve met through the site and am ecstatic over the number of regional people we have been able to assist.”

“We have about 1000 people registered and it is growing – in spurts. The next level we are planning is to create a network for people coming out of rural communities and becoming lost souls in cities.”

The e-connection is blossoming, with another website, www.ruralromance.com.au, aiming to connect people who love the country lifestyle and the down-to-earth, honest and open style which is typical of country communities.

Based on 20 years’ experience as a family business communication consultant, Lyn Sykes says that what makes an enduring relationship is the same as any other contract – you need to read the fine print and clarify expectations.

When a couple begins a relationship, there are at least three different levels of expectations which may not be talked about and never negotiated. These expectations are ones we know we have and have talked about, ones we know we have but have not talked about, and some we don't even know we have (until they are not met). How effectively these expectations are managed will have a strong bearing on the success of a marriage or partnership.

Lyn says country people often communicate in a different way. Their communication is understated and focuses on daily routines and tasks. They often fall into the trap of talking about what’s going wrong rather than what’s going right.

“When they work and live in a family business there are a lot of assumptions, sometimes inaccurate ones. A lot of communication is in what is not said, rather than what is. Silence may not mean agreement, it often means disagreement,” Lyn says.

Some farm families, particularly those of English origin, are private and very courteous and although that is a really good thing, sometimes it may mean that hard questions don’t get asked. There’s a tendency to hope things will sort themselves out rather than actively address them. They also may have a greater level of concern about what neighbours and others will think.

Ian Coldwell’s current research in the Riverina area is looking at the influence of masculinity types in the field of farming.

Men with an open masculinity style seek more sustainable farming techniques, tend to use less fertilisers and chemicals, drought-proof with native species and retain remnant vegetation. They look for alternative markets, including organic markets, for their products and are also more likely to have equitable personal relationships.

“Closed masculinity is a stifling style, whereas more open masculinity means workers and family members have dialogue and discuss what they are doing, even if the physical work is still claimed by the men as a masculine domain and women still do the housework and bringing up children.

“The huge amount of information on the internet is driving this more open style because it presents an opportunity to embrace a wider range of knowledge.”

Ian says the need for constant innovation makes farming a tough business and the drought just intensifies all that and makes it more difficult.

“If a farm family’s relationships are good these people find ways of coping and doing things together to ensure the relationship survives. But if relationships are unsteady, these things just make it worse and can impact very heavily.

“In her research at CSU, Margaret Alston suggests women carry the greatest burden on their backs in tough times by looking out for the health and welfare of the family, often neglecting their own needs, whereas the men stay outside trying to do something about an impossible situation.”

Country doctor Chester Wilson, from Charleville in western Queensland, says people are under a lot more pressure these days but most are weathering it and putting up with the difficult times.

“When there are relationship problems, it is sometimes hard to convince the men there is a problem because they don’t see it, or don’t want to see it, and women can’t necessarily define it,” Dr Wilson says.

From her home base at Dubbo in New South Wales, Lyn Sykes is working with rural families with the view to empowering them to have more choices.

Lyn says country people are sometimes reluctant to seek help to improve their relationships and communication because they lack the belief that anyone can help them. Alternatively they may have a culture of “we sort out our own problems in this family” or “we don’t want to be told what to do”.

However counselling is not about being told what to do, it is a means of helping people find out what they want to do and then doing it.

She says the thing that separates enduring families from the bunch is that they regularly communicate in a structured way, maybe meeting and talking once a week about what’s happening, and having regular holidays away – and that does not mean at a machinery field day!

The three main areas of conflict in relationships are time, money and housing. Differences and expectations on these subjects can be huge.

Lyn says the most common combination of marriage partnerships is when a farm boy marries a city girl and they can fit comfortably together if their values of work and family are similar.

For example, people’s ideas about how many hours make up a working day, a working week and a working year can vary widely. When people are working in a non-family environment, these expectations are clear but in family farm businesses they can be less clear and become a source of conflict.

One of the most difficult family relationships link back to when a farming son goes away to school (probably the same school his father went to), comes straight back to the farm, lives with the parents until he marries and then settles near by.

“When children have lived with their parents while working with them, it is sometimes harder to establish a new scenario with an intimate partner when mum and dad are still close by.”

“And when extended families live on properties, it helps if their houses are a bit separate. My rule of thumb is that the clothes lines should not be visible from each other’s homes because that separation helps foster independence and privacy.”

When professional women with successful careers move to the country to be with a new partner, they can have difficulty finding like-minded people to connect with in the local community.

The impact of this sense of dislocation is lessened if their work skills are transferable – such as teaching, nursing, and accounting professions are – and they are able to continue their work either in a nearby regional centre or by telecommuting.

For Carol Watson, coming to Andrew’s family farm from a professional background as an agricultural scientist with a range of experiences in the business world meant she needed to push the boundaries of role definition and expectation.

“Accommodating separate individuals and careers requires good communication, as well as being sensitive to each partners’ needs and strengths in working and living together,” says Carol.

“Andrew has a modern approach to equity in sharing the domestic chores and making time to have emotional input into our young daughters’ lives.

“Domestic shortcuts are sometimes required when you take on additional challenges beyond the home, and that can involve becoming familiar with packet biscuits and cakes instead of home-baked ones.”

Lyn Sykes says good relationships are more likely when individual partners have a broader view of the world than just the family farm, if they have worked for others and been educated either formally or practically.

Lyn summaries the important factors in making relationships enduring:

• Having a broader world view beyond the family farm, and broader interests than just the farm.
• Having life experience/education away from the family and the family farm.
• Having agreed, clear boundaries when more than one generation is involved in the family business.
• Not living closely together or having houses within view of each other to enable partners to have their own space for privacy and reflection.
• Having mutual respect for difference, and being confident enough not to need to surround yourself with people who are like you.

Although the Bureau of Statistics doesn’t compare the number of marriages (or divorces) between country and city, Rod Saal believes there are far fewer divorces in the bush because they have the ability to pull together when the going gets tough.

“When the seasons turn around, the bush is forgiving and it still offers a wonderful lifestyle with real mateship to be found.

“They show incredibly generational loyalties too, sometimes to long-dead relatives who settled the land, which often fires their determination to conquer drought and other hurdles that come their way.”

In terms of family business succession, Lyn Sykes says when there is respect from the younger generation acknowledging the experience and wisdom of the older generation, and the older generation acknowledging the energy, enthusiasm, and in some cases skills, of the younger generation then the combination can be fantastic.

But she warns that the advent of the Y-generation (people born in the 1980s and 1990s) will have a huge influence on future relationships in the bush.

“Gen Ys have a very different attitude that is not necessarily disrespectful but certainly less tolerant, more direct and less patient. They won’t abide doing things ‘the way we’ve always done them’ so they are likely to rattle the cages of the baby boomer generation, their parents, who are the controllers.”

A fortunate life – breakout profile

She has known joy, sorrow, loss, drought and tough times. Faced adversity and risen to its challenges after finding herself alone in the bush, without warning, through the premature death of her partner. Being denied the chance to say I love you and goodbye leaves a scar that never fully heals.

Caroly Laurie cried into the wind at Boree near Walcha on the New England Tableland after her first husband Andrew died, but just as the Australian landscape regenerates and flourishes after traumatic natural events, so too do the people in its keeping.

With cushioning from her small country community, nurturing from Andrew’s family and good friends, and a huge dose of grit and guts, Caroly learned to live solo on the land and emerged as a successful businesswoman and leader, and eventually again found love in the bush.

There is a glow of victory in Caroly Laurie’s steady green gaze and extra Irish lilt in her voice as she announces her victory over a GST glitch in the Boree books.

She has laboured hard to master this tax on her wits and is clearly pleased to have triumphed. In a quietly unassuming but determined way, Caroly has become adept at mastering challenges and has come along way from the dark days of 1979 when, without warning, her contented and comfortable way of life collapsed.

Back then Caroly was hardly able to tell a crossbred from a Merino, knew little about counselling, had a seven-year-old son to parent and faced her second mountain of self-discovery.

The first mountain had been fun and easy, beginning with travels from her home in the rolling hills of Carlow in the southeast of Ireland, through Canada and New Zealand tending horses on dude ranches, drenching sheep and playing solo guitar at night spots.

These travels led her to the annual race meeting in the small town of Walcha on the New England Tablelands of New South Wales where she was introduced to Andrew Laurie, a much loved and respected local, a Wallaby player who was hooker on two tours of New Zealand.

They married and settled at Boree, in the house in which Andrew was born.

“Andrew was a capable manager and I busied myself with gardening, spinning and weaving. But I had only lived the life of the lady of the house for about a year before the wool market collapsed.”

Caroly was used to “making do” so she undertook several schemes to earn cash. She and a friend tanned sheepskins and sewed them into clothes. Next Caroly bought two sows and raised piglets in the chook yard and then purchased Whim Creek shares that went from 5c to $3, which meant she was made.

“Sean was born in 1972 and there was great jubilation on the arrival of our son. We had a happy and contented life, Andrew managed the place very successfully, worked hard and was very fit, we thought. Life was good.”

But Caroly’s life was not destined to be straightforward. It changed irrevocably when Andrew died unexpectedly, in July 1979, from a massive heart attack during the first week of a skiing holiday before Sean and Caroly could join him for the second week, as planned.

She was forced to go forward alone after less than a decade of married life. As a young mother, and under the guidance of a family friend, she took on the running of Boree – a 1100 ha sheep and cattle property where the four seasons bring extremes of heat and cold.

"The whole bottom fell out of my world. If you wrote a checklist on how not to handle loss, particularly for a child, I did all of those things but with all the best intentions. I didn't take Sean to the funeral and I didn't talk to him about Andrew because I would burst into tears and thought that was bad for him.

"There was no counselling that I was aware of, so I became addicted to walking. I used to cry into the wind.”

Over time the place prospered, and in 1980 Caroly decided to do a wool-classing course in Walcha.

“It was like a therapy for me. I was the only female, among all these young farmers, and I felt very inadequate. Two years later, I topped the state. I was thrilled about that and had a real sense of achievement.

“The drought broke in May ‘83, things picked up, and later that year I met Freddie, who was to eventually become my second husband.”

Freddie, a Canadian priest, had come out from Toronto to play Golden Oldies rugby in Sydney and Caroly was introduced to him by an old friend of Andrew's.

There was a spark between them but the timing wasn’t right because Caroly was still struggling with Boree and Sean was only 11, but sometime later they rekindled the romance and there was no turning back.

Freddie was 65 when he moved to Boree and married Caroly more than a decade ago. Sean is grown, married to Rachael, a positive and energetic country girl and they have two daughters Adele and Annabel.

Both Caroly and Freddie are involved in counselling work for the Anglican Counselling Service at Walcha, while Caroly also does one day a week with the service in Tamworth.

“The need is enormous from people looking to heal from emotionally damaging experiences.”

Caroly is still actively engaged on the farm but has also found time to attain a Bachelor of Counselling from the Lois Reid College of Counselling Studies, which she completed by distance education.

“I believe I have led a privileged and fortunate life. I’ve experienced great happiness and the depths of despair. But knowing such sadness has made me a more tolerant and understanding person and now I really appreciate the positives in my life.”

At home on the sea – breakout profile

Bruce Davey says it was love at first sight when he met Juanita, but Juanita was just busy checking out the most beautiful prawn trawler she’d ever seen.

Despite Bruce’s aunties despairing that he would ever marry, he and Juanita became friends and shortly after Juanita came to work on that beautiful trawler and they married a year or so later.

“You can’t really have an intimate relationship over a VHF radio,” says Juanita.

That was 20 years ago now and Bruce’s prawn trawler has been replaced by the Wildcard, a fully self-contained fishing boat which is home to the Davey family of Bruce, Juanita and their three children Tiger, Johanna and Elspeth.

They follow the ancient migratory route across the seas at the top end of Australia and make a living as professional fishers of barramundi and Spanish mackerel in the waters between Cape York and the Kimberlies.

Wildcard is the fifth boat Bruce and his father have built together. It’s a 22-metre long steel vessel that holds 14,000 litres of diesel, 14,000 litres of freshwater and has enough freezer space to hold 20 tonne of fish.

“We live on the boat full time and all the kids have their own cabins. They have been highly involved in the business from a young age and been paid for their work.”

“We don’t own a home in mainland Australia, so the kids have had this incredibly fascinating life with some amazing adventures in very remote parts of Australia, seeing beautiful beaches, and experiencing hard work and monsoon conditions.”

They only come into port to offload the catch, and reload with supplies that include about 180 loaves of bread, 150 litres of milk, two pigs, a cow and 50 chooks in the main freezer and head off to sea for 4-6 weeks at a time.

The industry they work in is highly regulated, with only 20 licences for professional barra fishermen in the Northern Territory which Bruce says brings a high degree of economic success and sustainability.

All the fish are caught with lines from small boats. When the fish are running it is a major adrenaline buzz says Juanita, whose record is catching 310 mackerel in one session.

“I love this life. This is the best job in the world because I earn money going game fishing,” Juanita says.

The children have grown up as sea gypsies on the boat. When they reached school age, they had lessons by distance education and HF radio with their school work being overseen by Tina.

“We had a string of governesses in the early days until we met Tina, who had a gift with little ones and became a second mum to our children,” Juanita says.

“Tina became part of our family and stayed with us for eight years. She jumped on the boat at the Gold Coast as a single mum with her son Marek, and now is a partner in our business.

“She left the boat three weeks ago to settle in Cairns for the last year of Marek’s schooling (in 2007), and I’m missing her sorely already,” says Juanita.

Tina says living and working on the boat has been so beneficial for the children, including Marek, because they get to see their parents doing their jobs and learn valuable life skills from that.

“Education is an ongoing thing, it is not just a school-room thing, and what they’ve seen on the boat is teamwork, doing the right thing and making mistakes,” Tina says.

“They’ve developed a good work ethic because they’ve pitched in to help, and Bruce has paid them for their work so that can save up and choose how they want to spend that money.”

As the children reached high school age, they have all gone to board in Cairns at Peace Lutheran College. The youngest, Elspeth, 12, will join sister Johanna 15, and Tiger and Marek, both 17, at PLC next year.

Bruce says the hardest thing for he and Juanita as parents is letting them go.

“We’ve lived with them on the boat for all the years until they turn 12. Then we have to kiss them goodbye and they’re 1000 km away, and you just hope that other people are raising them with the same dedication we have as loving parents,” he says.

“We only get to see them during school holidays four times a year. The weekly phone calls we have with them are usually via satellite phone, which costs $2/minute to talk, because it is rare that we are within mobile phone range.”

The novelty of life on the water hasn’t worn off for Juanita.

“This life gives us a very special relationship with our children, because we are their parents as well as their friends. If they were in town, they would be off with their mates, but a life at sea means we go snorkelling, surfing or fishing together,” Juanita says.

“I feel so privileged to lead the life that I do. Bruce and I are best friends and we’ll sit together on the bridge at the end of the day chatting about things or enjoying the solitude.”

The support of a community – breakout profile

Sally Cooper married an Englishman who was born in Kenya and the couple chose to make their home amongst Sally’s existing family and friendship base, where she grew up at Talwood near Goondiwindi in south-east Queensland.

They’d met briefly at the Talwood Races but their romance flourished when driving back to Toowoomba together following a summer evening in Brisbane with friends at St Johns Cathedral.

Friends and family were to provide a wonderful support for Sally and Chris as their family grew from two bright healthy children, James and Margot, to include a third child Claire who was born with Down’s syndrome.

“When Claire came along, the things people thought to do to help us made me aware of what wonderful, understanding people we have around us here in the country.”

Sally taught James and Margot at home until Claire was born and then they went into the local school, with the travelling being shared by car pooling with neighbours.

Eventually they went to boarding school, as many country kids do, although in hindsight Sally wonders if she would send them away as young again – they went in Year 6 and Year 5 respectively.

“You make these decisions because you think you are doing the right thing by your children by providing opportunities for education, music, sport and friendships.”

“Margot went away as early as she did because she was Gifted and was just so bored at the local school, there seemed to be no other option. Gifted education is only just getting some attention in schools but needs a great deal more.”

While some families decide to move into town for more choices, the Coopers decided not to because that would have taken them away from their support base.

“There are more services available in bigger centres, but our family and friends are here and we would have felt so alone in Toowoomba.”

Claire’s education was supported by the Isolated Childrens’ Special Education Unit situated at the Brisbane School of Distance Education which helped ensure she was being given work that she needed in order to progress.

Sally became involved in the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association and found the conferences an excellent forum for people to discuss education access issues and influence what options were available.

“We are lucky as a family that I was able to jump in the car and access the support and help I wanted and needed, in contrast to people who live in more isolation as some I talked to in my time on State Council of the ICPA as head of the Special Education Portfolio.”

Claire wanted to go to boarding school, as her siblings had, and after much investigation by Sally, Claire boarded initially to Toowoomba and then at Brisbane’s Clayfield College.

“They were wonderful and welcoming, and it was a positive experience for Claire, but when she eventually returned home to Talwood she missed the company of the other girls.”

“We felt real desperation for Claire when she left school. She had achieved a great deal, had been in the choir, the athletics team, doing judo and guitar lessons, and had done work experience for two years and suddenly there was nothing.”

“And of course Claire just wanted to go to university like her brother and sister!”

“Claire has been working for the past two years in Goondiwindi and joined the Taekwondo group, but that has involved lots of driving and limited the days Claire could work.”

With Chris and Sally are nearing retirement age, Claire’s needs became the catalyst for a move into Goondiwindi.

“Now that we are in town, Claire’s riding her bike, and involved in sport and we hope she can eventually live independently and share a flat when a suitable opportunity arises.”

“In Goondiwindi, there is respite care and a small youth group that gets together and going bowling or enjoy pizza and other things. These are all things Claire couldn’t do when we lived out of town because she isn’t able to drive.

“Through Claire we’ve met people we never would have met and we are all the richer for meeting those people. We are more tolerant and understanding because we have another insight that has kept us on an even keel.”


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