I sometimes take the dogs down the plateau, through a remnant of beech forest, to the paddock that runs alongside the Blackball Creek. This creek bed has been dug over several times: scoured by the early gold miners, including the Chinese; then by a dredge operating in the 1940s; finally, when we moved here in 2002, a digger and screen operator was turning it over yet again. When he left he landscaped the area, creating a couple of ponds and a swimming hole. The first flood destroyed his efforts and a stop bank had to be built to discipline the creek’s path.
The gravel sprouted grass, but the area remained vacant for a couple of years before being advertised for sale. It would have made a pleasant life-style block, but the price tag of a quarter of a million put it out of our league. The adjoining farmer bought the land, fenced it and occasionally a herd of cows arrives.
I’ve never had much to do with cows. They seem bemused, staring creatures and the dogs feel the same, being careful to avoid them. Occasionally, when we appear, the cows will come and crowd around us, as if bored. It does appear to be a boring life: walk to shed, get milked by a machine, walk to paddock, eat, walk to shed, get milked again, walk to paddock, presumably sleep. They seem very obedient as they plod in line to the milking shed, rather like the English in a queue.
They are artificially inseminated and their children taken away at birth – the boys rather than the girls are the unwanted ones and if the price for colostrum is good, will go to heaven very quickly. The cows are tagged and their productivity scrutinised via the computer. Milk tankers roam the roads and the milk is turned to powder and sent to Asia. As breast feeding rates plummet in Asia, there is controversy over baby formula – a further craziness of globalization?
There doesn’t seem much romance in being a dairy farmer. The share milkers with their herds negotiate an annual deal and shift from farm to farm, slowly acquiring the deposit to buy their own land. Come April there will be a farewell dinner at the local pub and off they go. Some country schools have a fifty percent turnover of students each year. Farm labourers are increasingly from the Philippines, the people of which can, seemingly, turn their hand to anything. Despite this fly in fly out, cows and all culture, the Grey Valley is relatively stable for there are still family farms, passed down through the generations.
But as I walk with the dogs on this seemingly solid ground, I am aware that this paddock is a construct, that the water courses underneath these stones that have been piled up by the digger and before the digger the dredge; that the cows are an industrial construct, that all, in a curious way, is unreal, as unreal as the city.
Except, unlike the city, there is still natural stuff happening. I am amazed at how much a herd of cows eat, and how much they shit. Two day old shit is attractive to the dogs. I can see how this volume of poo and wee must soak through the stones into the water. Yet the ducks seem happy enough on the ponds, the blackberries grow well, the tree cover is coming back swiftly in unmown areas and the water remains clear enough as it flows out of the bush to provide our water supply.
So, I simply walk, like the dogs, and enjoy the sensation of walking, letting the difficult thoughts flow away. Sometimes, if it is early morning, I stop and do the motions, those meditative exercises that Grotowski invented, paying homage to the sun and feeling the life spirit of the land and the trees, another social construct, before moving on.