Poems by Denis Kevans, Australia’s Poet Lorikeet. (1939–2005)
The announcement by the traditional owners and the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park Board that climbing Uluru (officially Uluru/Ayers Rock) will be officially prohibited from October 26th this year, has prompted a rush of tourists intent on climbing this globally recognised natural feature, sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu for at least 300 generations.
This isn’t surprising, given the wailing and gnashing of teeth rising from the ranks of Australians – latter day would-be Nazis among them – who are convinced that their “white culture” and “Christian beliefs” are under attack from everyone everywhere including, but not confined to, the United Nations, various halal certification boards, and a race of shape-shifting lizards of interplanetary origin who control the world financial system and appear to humans as Jews.
There have been reports of parents dragging small children with them as they attempted the climb – one couple even leaving an eight-year-old unattended at Uluru’s base while they did so – and rangers and others complain of people camping in prohibited areas and dumping rubbish and “black water” from campervan and caravan toilets and waste-water tanks all over the landscape.
Pauline Hanson, is vocal in her support of these culture warriors. And why wouldn’t she be? She has after all claimed that she is an Indigenous woman, having been born in Australia. Some might dispute her understanding of the term, but it is fairly obvious that dictionaries of any sort have never been high on her reading list. Her political party, such as it now is, has also expressed support, though thankfully its voice in our Parliaments is now more of a bleat than a loud croak.
As I said, none of this is surprising, but it is – or should be – a great source of shame to us as a nation; a shame amplified by the deafening silence emanating from the supposed leaders of the country. It would be a great thing if a Greta Thunberg, a Joan of the Rock, could rise to organise a sit-in at Uluru until the ban takes effect, or the nation comes to its senses. A thousand or so people assembled at the base of the climb chanting “shame, shame, shame” during daylight hours would be a wondrous thing, though it’s Sydney to the bush-On that the Northern Territory police would wade in. It was, you might remember, the NT government that boycotted the handback ceremony and vowed to rename the sacred feature “Ayers Rock” if and when the Territory attains statehood.
I’d probably be unable to attend such a sit-in – and I’m happy to explain why to anyone who cares – which distresses me a bit, but there is another great Australian tradition to which I can and will resort. In the days of our Colonial past, a swaggie named McQuade, for reasons now unknown, penned a curse on the Victorian town of Tallarook, and I’d like to invoke his spirit in the belief that being a self-professed Christian white person (usually male), doesn’t automatically endow some sort of Divine Right to trample on the beliefs and lives of others.
Over the ages, many cultures have developed forms of social punishment that don’t necessarily entail physical violence. The earliest Icelandic Althing (Parliament) once banished people from society for certain transgressions, cursing them as “far as an eagle may fly with a fair wind uplifting both wings” and “for as long as there are men to hunt wolves” according to one writer whose name now escapes me.
The English have long had transgressors “sent to Coventry“, imposing drastic social ostracism on individuals, a tradition so old that its origins are lost, and trade unionists’ hostility to scab labour sees the offenders and their families “blacked”, sometimes for generations. And there are some cultures that completely deny the existence of those who sin against them.
So, to all you sad, soul-less seekers of self-gratification, you arch-bastards who, through a misguided belief that your interests and personal ambitions including those as petty and meaningless as the need to upload a selfie, override all else, here’s a message:
When you come down from Uluru, that place which to you is just a rock put there for your enjoyment, think about what you have done. If you could hear, you might note the sound of distant weeping. If you could feel, you might sense the ancient earth, the red rust of mountains worn by time to sand and the keeping place for the bones of 2000 and more generations.
But you won’t hear or feel these things. There will never be a breeze gentle enough to cool you, nor a tree kind enough to shade you. No sunset will ever promise you a balmy night, no sunrise ever promise rain. The night skies will be dull to you and the glory of the universe closed to you. Birds will no longer sing for you; ravens and crows will not speak of you, and even Tjerit-tjerit, the Willy Wagtail, will spread no gossip of you.
The flowers will dull for you and no dew shall ever soften the summer grass through which you might wish to walk. The wind will never be at your back and all the paths before you will be stone.
You will exist only in your own mind and the world will have no memory of you, for you will never have been.
Photo credits Top: Panorama of Uluru by Stuart Edwards/Wikipedia People on Uluru: Uluru Climb by ennekapeapeon [Nathalie Kafurt]/Instagram
About fifty per cent of Australia’s adults – if I dare call
them that – have just sent you a message: they have told you that your future
and the future of the planet on which you live are unimportant. They have told
you that their concern for their own wellbeing and way of life overrides any
concerns you might have about future employment, education, and a place to
They have told you that being able to spend their remaining
years on the deck of a pleasure launch – assisted in part by a handout from
taxpayers – is more important than contributing to your education and
healthcare; more important than fighting to mend the earth you will inherit, an
earth so badly damaged by previous generations that your very existence is
They have told you that education should be only for those
who can afford it, as it has been for all but a few years of the last several
centuries; that first-class health care is only for the wealthy, and that the
environment doesn’t matter. They have told you that self-interest is more important than
the good of the nation and the health of our beautiful, ancient land.
They have told you they believe they are more worthy than
In a few months’ time, I shall be 79 years old, an age that
is beyond your imagining – I know this, because I remember what it was to be
young – and I have seen and done a lot of things. Some things I am not proud
of, but I don’t regret them; regrets are futile, mistakes are lessons. But one
constant in my life has been my love of people and the love of my country.
I love people because they are human, and being human means
that they are all different with a different story to tell. One of my
grandfathers, a man named George Hamilton, once told me to “never look at the
colour of someone’s skin”. That worried me until I was old enough to understand
what he meant.
When I was growing up, Australia was a country frightened of
difference. The indigenous peoples were different and, having at last become
ashamed of our efforts to exterminate them, we tried to change them. We tried
to make them whiter by regulating who they were allowed to marry, and when that
didn’t work, we used other laws to regulate their lives. The general public
just ignored them for the most part.
We were frightened of the Chinese who came to Australia
during the great goldrushes and so passed into law the “White Australia”
policy. We were frightened of the Italians and Greeks who came here in large
numbers after World War II. We were frightened of the “Balts”, the peoples of
Eastern Europe who were allowed in as refugees.
Did you know that before these migrants came to Australia, zucchinis, tomato paste, capsicums, egg plant, salami, and a thousand and one other now everyday foods were unheard of? That olive oil was sold in tiny bottles and used as a medicine? It’s true, I know; because it was in my lifetime.
But our country grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s and we became accustomed to different faces and customs. And we came to love different foods and new celebrations. We rejoiced in our diversity.
A Prime Minister named John Howard changed all that. In his time in office, he fought hard to send attitudes back to the 1950s, a trend that continues to this day and has now been reinforced. And like John Howard, many politicians hate the changes that have been made and want us to be frightened of everybody who is not “us”: they want us to demonise people born in Africa and Asia and to mistrust anybody who is a Muslim, regardless of their ethnicity. They would prefer it if we were all white and Christian and certainly not gay or vegetarian.
Conservative governments have always used this fear of “the
other” to divide us to their own advantage. But “the other” has broadened. It
now includes the unemployed, the less wealthy and those people for whom life
has never been easy. For a brief time, the “fair go” was an Australian
certainty, it is now a myth.
When the Indigenous peoples indicated that they would like
to see a First Nations committee set up to advise government on formulation of
any policy affecting them, they were given a blunt refusal. It would, the
government said, amount to another Chamber in Parliament. They had become “the
other” again; more than 60,000 years occupation of this continent apparently
doesn’t entitle them to a voice in government.
When next you attend an Anzac Day ceremony, bear in mind
that the men and women whom politicians glorify as wonderful and heroic
Australians – particularly those veterans of the two World Wars – are the same
people whose votes gave us the benefits that conservative governments are now bent
on taking away. Votes for women, health care, free education, pensions, and
numberless other things we once took for granted but no longer can. They have
become “privileges” not entitlements.
These same politicians are fond of telling you how much they
“love Australia”, but what they are saying is that they love it for what they
can get out of it, not what it does for them. They really have no concept of
the land itself, that mysterious “thing” that sustains both their mental and
physical health. They don’t feel its heartbeat through the soles of their feet,
for they “have no time to grow; they have no time to waste”*. If they did, they
would be in Parliament today and every day, addressing the biggest crisis to
face this planet and all creatures that rely on it since the day a hominid
first picked up a burning stick.
The people who voted against your future have benefited most
from programs put in place by more enlightened governments and it seems those
benefits have shortened their memories and made them selfish.
But there is hope. When brave young Greta Thunberg made her
appearance on the world stage, my heart lifted; she is, or should be, an
inspiration to us all. The door will only be open for a very short time before the
processes our politicians ignore become irreversible, and because fifty per
cent of your elders – and sadly it seems, some of your contemporaries – refused
to put the interests of the nation ahead of their own, this huge burden is now
on your shoulders.
My generation and the one just after seem to have forgotten that
we took to the streets and stopped a war; we took to the streets and ended apartheid
in South Africa; we took to the streets to help our Indigenous brothers and
sisters in their fight for dignity. Young people were jailed – and in some
countries, the USA among them, killed. But they won. In the end they won. And
you can win this fight, you must win, there is no alternative worth contemplating.
Fifty per cent of us will be behind you as best we can, but it will be your
energy and determination that will save our planet and your future from the
No breadlines I’m glad to say, the *donkey won election day, No more standin’ in the snowin’ blowin rain; We’ve got money in our jeans, we can travel like the queens, We’ve got Franklin D Roosevelt back again. — “Okie” song from the Great Depression
In common with much of the Western world, Australia now finds itself led – and I use that word reluctantly – by self-serving politicians who, concerned more with enriching themselves and their parties, and meeting the demands of their financial backers, ignore the wishes of the people and the good of the nation.
With the country – and the world – facing its biggest threat since a hominid first picked up a burning stick or shaped a stone , we are faced with governments and corporations so obsessed with amassing mountains of wealth that they ignore what is happening around them.
Perhaps, like Australia’s Pentecostal Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, they believe that as the word and its sinners burn, the Rapture will lift them up to Heaven, to be reincarnated at some later date. At the risk of being cynical I would suggest that in reality the Rapture is just another name for wealth, its worshippers believing it will save them from the fate awaiting the plebeian hordes. The attitude of our faux-Christian PM would certainly suggest this is so.
While we adults procrastinate, obfuscate or fulminate, depending on our view of things, it is largely left to the children to make an impact and, hopefully, when they are old enough to vote, to turn things around. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, began a movement that is growing daily, a movement hoping to shame politicians and corporations to act on climate change, yet the most common response from those in a position to institute change seems to be “You should be in school”. A strange attitude; education doesn’t seem to have encouraged the titans of politics and wealth to see the blindingly obvious. And time is running out.
What Australia desperately needs is someone of real vision and courage, someone to take on the forces of the status quo as Franklin D Roosevelt did in the 1930s. FDR took on the coal and railway barons and forced rampant capitalism to work in the interests of the common people, the working poor and the unemployed, the struggling dirt farmer – the “jest plain folks”of this world.
Four times elected in a landslide, Franklin D Roosevelt died while serving an unprecedented fourth term in office. Up until that time, no president had been elected to the position more than twice and it had become almost a convention that no-one would stand after their second term.
Yet unbridled greed won out in the end. On his death, Congress, no doubt under pressure from the barons of wealth, legislated to make a maximum two terms mandatory. But FDR’s legacy lived on in the financial reforms and conservation programs he instituted. He reined in the worst excesses of the financial system, instilled pride in the National Parks and improved the lot of the ordinary citizen. With the election of Ronald Reagan, the undermining of many of the “New Deal” programs began, and we feel the effects of this today.
The New Deal
In 1993, with the worldwide Great Depression at its height, US President Franklin D Roosevelt introduced his “New Deal”; a series of financial and regulatory reforms and an ambitious program of public works designed to alleviate unemployment and stimulate the economy. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) formed a large part of this New Deal.
Running from 1933 to 1942, the CCC was a relief-work program that recruited unemployed, unmarried men. At first it was restricted to young, single men between 18 and 25 but was later widened to include unmarried men from 17 to 28.
The CCC provided unskilled manual labor for projects related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned and managed by federal, state and local governments. It had two major goals: to provide jobs for young men, and to help relieve the financial plight of families suffering the effects of the Great Depression.
A maximum 300,000 recruits were in the CCC ranks at any one time, but over the course of the nine-year program, 3,000,000 young men participated in the scheme. The CCC provided them with shelter, clothing, and food, and a wage of about $30 a month. Of this, $25 had to be sent home to their families.
Over its lifetime, the CCC planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America; constructed trails, lodges, and related facilities in more than 800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks. It improved forest fire-fighting methods, and constructed a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas.
The CCC was the most popular of all the New Deal programs. It was said that participation in the improved physical condition, heightened morale, and increased the likelihood of gaining employment elsewhere. The program also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors and the nation’s natural resources, and the continued need for a carefully planned, comprehensive national program for their protection and development.
I have a friend in Kentucky whose father was a CCC recruit. A country boy from the mountains, his Dad recalled being issued with, among other things, brand new work clothes and two pairs of boots – the first new shoes he’d ever owned. Free haircuts and dental care were also provided.
Other people recounted older relatives’ memories of the effects on little towns when the monthly family remittance arrived. It was as though the circus had come to town. People paid off their bills at the local store and the kids could perhaps enjoy a Coke or an ice-cream, Coca Cola “…bein’ but a nickel (5c) in them hard times”, my friend remembered his mother saying, while the womenfolk could stock up on “notions” – needles, thread, etc. – and other small household items.
The great Dust Bowl
What became known as the Dust Bowl was a prolonged period of severe dust storms that ripped through the North American prairies during the 1930s, exacerbating the ravages of the Great Depression. Three periods of severe drought – 1934, 1936 and 1939– 40 – made worse by the farming methods of the time that triggered extensive erosion of the wind-swept prairie were the main causes.
The rapid mechanisation of farm equipment during the 20s and 30s had contributed to farmers’ decisions to convert the arid grassland of the Great Plains, much of it with an average annual rainfall of about 250mm, to cropping. With little understanding of the Plains’ ecology, they carried out extensive deep ploughing of the virgin topsoil, displacing the deep-rooted native grasses that normally trapped soil and moisture, even during drought and periods of high winds.
During the droughts of the 1930s, the exposed and broken soil turned to fine, black dust which the prevailing winds blew away in huge, choking clouds, often blackening the sky. Named “black blizzards” or “black rollers”, they travelled as far as the east-coast cities. Out on the plains, they often reduced visibility to a metre or less. One terrible result of these storms was popularly known as the “dust pneumonia”, an often-fatal lung infection in humans and animals brought on by inhaling the fine, black dust.
Affecting 400,000squ/km, the disaster was centred on the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, and touched adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. In many cases having been loaned money by shonky financiers on terms impossible to meet – welcome to the GFC – and unable to pay their mortgages or grow crops to sustain themselves, tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families were forced off their farms. By 1936, losses had reached $25 million per day. Many of these families migrated to California and other states in search of work on the fruit and vegetable farms, only to find that the Depression had affected economic conditions there almost as badly as in the places they had left.
Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 3.5 million people left the Plains states; in one year alone, over 86,000 of them went to California, more than during the 1849 gold rush. They abandoned homesteads in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, but were often simply referred to as “Okies”, “Arkies” or “Texies”.
Hey Okie, have you seen Arkie, Tell him Tex has got a job for him, Out in Californee Diggin’ up gold; All he needs is a shovel.
Chorus: He’ll be lucky if he finds himself a place to live, But there’ll be orange juice fountains flowin’ for those kids of his. Hey Okie, have you seen Arkie, Tell him Tex has got a job for him, Out in Californee —”Okie” song from the Great Depression
Greatly expanded government participation in land management and soil conservation was an important outcome from the disaster. During Franklin D Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office in 1933, his administration moved swiftly, initiating soil conservation programs and that year establishing the Soil Erosion Service, later renamed the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and brought under the umbrella of the Department of Agriculture.
To identify areas that needed attention, the SCS produced detailed soil maps and took aerial photographs. To create shelterbelts to reduce soil erosion, the Prairie States Forestry Project planted trees on private lands, and the Resettlement Administration encouraged small-farm owners in drier parts of the Plains to resettle elsewhere.
As part of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, Congress in 1936 passed and Act requiring landowners to share allocated government subsidies with their farm labourers to restore parity of farm and non-farm incomes to what it had been in the first decades of the 20th century. To stabilise prices, the government ordered the slaughter of 6,000,000 pigs, compensating farmers and paying to have the meat packed and distributed to the poor and hungry. The Federal Service Relief Corporation (FSRC) was established to regulate crop and other surpluses.
Roosevelt, in one of his addresses, stated:
“Let me make one other point clear for the benefit of the millions in cities who have to buy meats. Last year the nation suffered a drought of unparalleled intensity. If there had been no Government program, if the old order had obtained in 1933 and 1934, that drought on the cattle ranges of America and in the corn belt would have resulted in the marketing of thin cattle, immature hogs and the death of these animals on the range and on the farm, and if the old order had been in effect those years, we would have had a vastly greater shortage than we face today. Our program – we can prove it – saved the lives of millions of head of livestock. They are still on the range, and other millions of heads are today canned and ready for this country to eat.”
The FSRC diverted agricultural commodities to relief organisations. Fruit, vegetables, tinned beef, flour, pork products and cotton goods to feed and clothe the needy were distributed through local relief channels. In 1935, the federal government formed an agency to coordinate relief activities. It bought cattle in designated emergency areas for $14 to $20 a head. Animals determined unfit for human consumption were killed – initially more than 50 percent in the hardest-hit areas – and the remainder used in food distribution to families nationwide. Although farmers were often reluctant to surrender their herds, the program helped many of them avoid bankruptcy. Many could not afford to keep their cattle, and the government price was better than they could get at local sales.
President Roosevelt ordered the CCC to plant a huge belt of trees – more than 200 million of them, creating almost 29,000 km of windbreaks on some 30,000 farms between the US–Canada border and the Texas Panhandle. It would break the persistent prairie wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. The administration also began farmer education in soil conservation and anti-erosion measures including crop rotation, strip farming, contour ploughing and terracing.
In 1937, the government began campaigning aggressively to encourage farmers in the Dust Bowl to adopt these new soil conservation measures, paying reluctant farmers a dollar an acre to try the new methods. By 1938, these massive conservation efforts had reduced the amount of blowing soil by nearly two-thirds. But the land still failed to yield a decent living, until in the autumn of 1939, after nearly a decade of dirt and dust, the drought ended when regular rains at last returned to most of the region. However, the government still encouraged the continued use of conservation methods to protect the soil and ecology of the Plains.
*”The donkey” refers to the mule used as a party emblem by the Democrats, Republicans use the elephant.
Want to hear the common view? The New Lost City Ramblers Songs of the Great Depression, Library of Congress. The songs and writings of Woody Guthrie
and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, all provide great insight