Back in late ’79 I’d just returned to the Old Brown Land from an extended stay in the Long Cloud, also known as the Shaky Isles and New Zealand, and after a brief sojourn in Sydney – where I worked as a reader of Acts and Bills for the State Government Printer – I decided it was time I rediscovered the Australia I had most missed during my time in voluntary exile. My new girlfriend suggested we go down to work in the fruit out on the irrigation country in the arid south-west corner of New South Wales, close to the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers, rivers now in the desperate stages of what will be a terminal illness unless government listens to the scientists fighting for its life. This is a tragedy made even more poignant by the rivers’ iconic status, for the Murray–Darling system holds the same place in Australian hearts as the Mississippi does in Americans’ and the Thames in the hearts of the English.
We decided to head for the Coomealla district of NSW, just over the river from Mildura on the Victoria side, so with a few clothes, provisions and some camp-cooking gear in a couple of small backpacks and my guitar case in my hand, we got out on the highway to thumb the 1,000-odd road kilometres to Dareton. It ended up taking about three days – school holiday times were never the best for hitching – but there were still enough farmhands and ordinary bush people on the road to get us there in relative comfort and summer temperatures made for easy sleeping under the sky.
We were lucky. We got there about three weeks before the grape harvest began – it was a late season – but a few enquiries over beers at the Coomealla pub directed us to the extended Judd family who hired us in advance of the harvest, telling us we could have the use of their old pickers’ hut, one of the last in the district. We were doubly lucky; most of the old-style huts had been swept aside in a wave of local governments’ passion for “progress” with its counterpart in State government rationalisations that had resulted in the doing away of the “Fruit-Fly Special” – a carriage attached to the regular passenger train service to Mildura that offered cheap transport to the fruit districts for itinerant workers.
We spent a bit over two years in that hut. Shaded by huge old Atholl pines – tamarisks – that gave relief from the worst of the 120-in-the-shade summer days, it was basic but cosy. A small bedroom and larger kitchen with room for a table and chairs were in the hut proper, while outside were a shower – hot water courtesy of a little wood-fired donkey-boiler attached to a tank made from a 44-gallon fuel drum – and a traditional style outside dunny. The hut was ventilated by big corrugated iron-clad shutters that were propped open on hot days to allow for free passage of air.
The Judds were a close-knit family of Seventh Day Adventists whose dinky-di Australian-ness somehow blended with their religious beliefs, seemingly with no effort. They may have inwardly shuddered at the lifestyles of neighbors and employees, but without exception were neighbourly and polite to all they encountered and always willing to help someone in need. More than once we were “loaned out” to help one of their fellow growers who’d had difficulty getting enough labor to do essential work. For two full seasons and a bit more we picked sultanas, currants and raisins, pruned and “pulled out” – removed the spent sultana canes from the trellis wires – and sweated on the drying racks. When not working for the Judds we picked oranges for Col, a very irreligious neighbour who was also a good drinking partner with a fine singing voice. With me on guitar we worked out a great arrangement of “Lucky Old Sun” that brought the house down at a hooley one night.
Being Seventh Day Adventists, the older generation of male Judds would not take up arms during World War Two, serving instead in the Medical Corps. At war’s end, not a few went back to the South Pacific to serve as what they called “medical missionaries” in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia; one such was a Judd family member known to all as Uncle Tom.
I liked Tom. He had a wicked sense of humour and loved a yarn; he also had one of those minds that ceaselessy wander through the pastures of the imagination, picking a bit from here, a bit from there and chewing them over and over till he’d extracted every bit of mental sustenance that he possibly could. I also admired his religious conviction. Like the rest of the Judd clan I never once heard him curse anyone. He might admit that he couldn’t understand this or that, but he would never condemn. A town desperate, known for his violence when the booze was on him, was known to have badly beaten his wife and Tom was so moved as to criticise: “He could be a better man were it not for the drink.” The elder of the clan, Charlie Judd was the same. Some local brats had opened the water channel near his house, flooding the front yard and a workshop. “I wish you had been there, Frank,” Charlie said. “You could have told them off much better than I was able.” Hadyn, the youngest Judd, was not without a sense of humour. Within a few days of the water incident, a neighbour was spraying orange trees at what seemed a strange time and I was moved to wonder aloud what he might be spraying for. “Kids, probably,” was Hadyn’s immediate and laconic rejoinder.
Back to the yarn. Uncle Tom had been a medical missionary for 10 years and smokos and the meal break were enlivened by stories of his time in the islands. Having a mind similar to Tom’s, I soaked up his anecdotes like a sponge. Being a staunch SDA, Tom was also a firm believer in natural foods and was full of criticisms of the modern diet. Homogenised milk was, according to Uncle Tom, very dangerous, because the process rendered the fat molecules small enough to pass through the stomach wall and directly into the bloodstream. Recent findings have borne Tom’s theories out, though the mechanics are a bit more complicated. I once put to Tom my belief that we were doing ourselves harm by eating foods out of their season. I argued that humans have evolved to eat feast-or-famine fashion, gorging on what was abundant in its season and going without when it was scarce. How is it, I asked Tom, that south-eastern Aboriginal peoples, who during the season gorged on bogong moths until “every pore oozed with the oil they had consumed” and the Top End clans who during the nesting season eat goose eggs by the canoe load, how is it that they didn’t drop like flies from the cholesterol and fat overload? Tom sort of agreed with me, reckoning that it was probably better to scoff homegrown tomatoes by the bucket for their limited season and then go without for the remaining nine months.
Then there was his yaws story. Yaws is an ugly, tropical disease of the skin and bones caused by a spirochaete bacterium. The disease, Uncle Tom told us, was rife among the islanders he worked with and its control became a major concern. However, as yaws was brought under control, the incidence of syphillis began to rise. It was believed, Tom said, that the yaws spirochaete supressed that which caused syphillis.
And so we come to the point of this discourse – and if you think I’m a long-winded writer then be warned, never engage me in actual conversation. It must have been a year after I left the grape blocks that I was listening to a radio documentary on the rise and spread of AIDS. One of the scientists involved in the hunt for the culprit described how it had for so long eluded them because, and this is how I recall it, the virus “hid behind” the smallpox virus, to which it was very similar. Uncle Tom’s yaws story sprang to mind. Didn’t AIDS proliferate at about the same time that smallpox was eliminated?
I remember another radio documentary about the rise in heart disease and the link to changes in the diet. The increase in consumption of fatty foods was seen as a major culprit and much discussion ensued about fats from seafood and fats from land animals – Omega-3 and cholesterol were soon to become enormously profitable buzz words. Yet another radio program, this one on the decline of traditional farming, contained a comment by an English farmer bemoaning the loss of diversity in livestock breeds, particularly pigs – there are now, generally speaking, only two or three breeds of pig raised commercially. This and the rise of factory farming, he said, has led to animals putting on what he called “soft fat”. Prior to WWII, he went on, animals were hardened by roaming pastures for feed and their fat had a different composition, “hard fat” as the old-timer put it.
Another documentary, another bit of trivia. The traditional meats consumed by Australia’s indigenous peoples contain higher levels of Omega-3s than does meat in the modern diet. Wild sheep, the ancestors of today’s breeds, also contain significant levels of this fatty acid. Has intensive farming and the livestock feeds associated with it changed the chemical composition of the meat we eat? I know that grain-fed beef smells and tastes faintly of the pellets you feed domestic chooks if you’ve run out of grains, so why wouldn’t this be so?
Okay, so you reckon it’s all far-fetched and fanciful, but spare me days, I have to do something with my mind.