The whole state where I live has been drought declared. It’s a big place, New South Wales. Our cattle grazing farm is in the worst hit area, suffering the driest weather recorded in a century. No decent rain for two years now. No precipitation forecast for the next three months either. There will be no spring growth; just another early summer scorching the earth with more record temperatures.
It’s still winter, but global warming and climate change means the birds have started nesting already. It’s meant to be temperate in our part of the country. We’re nowhere near the outback, but the majority of July and August days were well above twenty degrees. It’s uncanny and unseasonal.
The other day, I laughed to see a nesting magpie swoop and peck at a bald man’s head. His tiny fox terrier had the leash so taut he almost pulled him along. They both tried to dance away from a dive-bombing black bird protecting its young. But the weather and what it’s doing to birds, animals and us isn’t funny, it’s horrendous.
When I came back from my honeymoon, I’d never seen the land so lush. I gazed at long grass and mini watercourses trickling down from each mountain. The rain pooled in the creek that winds through the deep valley of our property. We had whole paddocks of pointy pine trees, hills clad in bluish grey eucalypts, and green pasture that went on and on in bright sickle-shaped contours. I couldn’t wait to have children; to bring them up in such a vibrant environment; a home place where they could thrive.
As you can see from the rise behind my garden, we have no grass now. What is there is practically inedible; a thin covering over bare brown dirt that whips up with each strong wind. Hundred-year-old gums are dying, sloughing off massive branches. There are patches of rusty colour that means all the leaves have finally dried out and the trees are dead. This is the time those trees should be flowering; feeding the honeyeaters that love this farm almost as much as I do.
The Common Wallaroo mother still wears her winter fur coat of soft grey. You can see the weight of the joey inside dragging down her pouch. Its paws are crossed, as if in desperate prayer for some green pick, some tender shoots to supplement mum’s milk.
Normally, these female Common Wallaroos have two or three joeys on the go at once. In a good season, there is one baby about to be weened, at her heel, but still suckling; there’s also a smaller joey drinking from a different teat inside the pouch, and an embryo about the size of a big jelly bean all ready to develop if either of the other’s die.
Australian survivors, all macropods are tough. They travel enormous distances in search of feed and water, and in times when plenty of food maximises their survival, the roo girls can churn out joeys anytime all year.
My husband says it’s unusual to see any baby roos at all now; females don’t come into breeding season in droughts. Just like our goats, who’ve been abandoning their kids as soon as they give birth, masses of Eastern Grey Kangaroos on our property have kicked their babes out of the pouch and are leaving them to die. It’s sad, but real.
Adult rock wallabies and roos are everywhere; I’ve never seen so many hopping about, and never seen so many dead beside the roads either. Always nocturnal, once we saw them only at dawn, dusk or when driving at night. In the last year of extreme weather though, they scrounge for food constantly. We feed our livestock, but not the roos who graze our paddocks and plunder our gardens.
The grey mum is sitting in what was my herb garden. In the spring of 2016, it was overgrown with chives, mint, basil, oregano, sage, marjoram, and rosemary. Plus weeds in between naturally. It’s been decimated, but our dog used to pee on it, so none of us wanted to eat what grew there much anyway. It’s no big loss.
Out watering this morning, I noticed the roos haven’t just eaten my potted geraniums, but they’ve torn off pieces of lavender and converted the pungent rosemary into bare sticks. This is after the Wallies plucked every leaf off my beloved rose bushes, trying to come back from dormancy at the end of a warm, dry winter.
I’m blaming that big dark daddy. Twice as heavy as the females, he needs to eat a lot to support those massive muscles. A giant, he is the first Wallaroo I’ve seen drink from my bird bath.
Just behind a grevillea that’s struggling to survive in the first photo, another pair of female Wally-ears are hiding. Can you spot her? She must be mate number two in the big black dude’s harem. If you look on a big screen, you’ll see the grey dots on the bare hills are more roos searching out a snack.
I hate the roos for eating my roses, trimming my sapling tree tops and devouring my shrubs. But, I love the roos for being so close I can photograph them through the windows of my lounge room. It’s amazing to watch their ears turn around at sounds. The mums and joeys are exquisitely beautiful. I don’t get tired of seeing them; watching is like a meditation.
I had one tiny Red-necked Wallaby mum grazing on the winter grass outside my bathroom a couple of years ago. She had a pretty white stripe on her cheeks. When it was big enough, the joey tipped its head to the grass, shivering before retreating back to its fur lined cave. It happened every morning when I hopped in the shower. Often late for work; I couldn’t pull my eyes away. Can you blame me?
When joey went out on its own for the first time, those paws froze on the frosted lawn. Within half a second it jumped back in head first to get warm again. I’m lucky to have Wallabies, Wallaroos and Kangaroos so close.
Like the joey with crossed paws, I’m constantly wishing for drought breaking rain and green grass. I visualise our creek thundering with rapids so loud, I can hear them out my bedroom window. Or the sound of rain pelting the roof, waking me at three in the morning. I hope for puddles again and swampy land to bring a hundred Ibis back to feed here. I pray to have all the parrots sounding off in the aftermath of a storm. I want to celebrate as birds do when the sky clears by singing, prancing and partying as they dry out their sopping feathers. I make daily deals with God to drench my clothes and skin and the dirt beneath with plump, warm raindrops. I plead with the universe to be able to go outside in the big wet and spin until I’m dizzy.
I’m a farmer’s wife. In these hard yards of devastating drought, I don’t begrudge the animals that come to our home for a drink; they are extraordinary. And despite the multitude of incremental changes in our climate lately, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.