Under a Big Sky
Tim Saunders writes about his life and work on the farm that’s been in his family for five generations. He encompasses drought, farming during lockdown, illness, financial pressure and the drive to become more viable and environmentally friendly. Woven throughout is Tim’s love of, and respect for, the land, animals and the environment. He describes how farming is intertwined with the weather, how the weather has changed, how the changes affect farmers and what they are doing to counteract this Tim describes how his forebears farmed, and how methods have changed. He referenced these ancestors in his first book This Farming Life but now he explores how they farmed, who they were, why they did what they did and how that affects him and the farm today. With the impact of climate change there is a need to change farming practices. Like other farmers Tim and his family are closely studying their farming system, deciding what needs to be done to stay viable. To survive. To work within the environment while feeding an ever-growing population. They are looking at the past to shepherd the future of the farm.
The hawk scoops broad arcs in the air, churning and turning over patchwork paddocks. Yellow eyes scythe the earth in search of the small and the dead as his shadow flicks over sheep and cattle. The Ōroua River cuts a meandering line through open plains, clouds crumple against distant ranges. Buoyant air lifts the hawk in ever-widening circles, and I wonder if it is him that is turning or the earth itself.
We call him Kāhu, and he has kept watch over the land since before my family started farming here 115 years ago. I know it is not the same bird, but we like to think he is a direct descendant of the hawk that soared above my great-great grandfather’s head.
Kāhu rises towards the dawn sun as the moon slips beyond the far horizon. The farm is where it has always been. Clumps of macrocarpas, pines and poplars sway gently, flaxes and cabbage trees swaddle a wetland. Ducks spatter the water’s smooth surface while magpies quardle ballads to the brightening day. White-faced herons creak like rusty hinges from willows. Fences slice straight lines across the flat landscape, interspersed with gates and culverts, and a digger has scraped fresh teeth marks in the dirt. Power poles reach skywards, and sparrows dot slim wires. There is nature here, although little is natural.
Kāhu spreads his wings between sun and moon, clutches the new day in rust-coloured talons. The red sky is smeared like blood over a waking world. From here he sees everything. Everything worth seeing. Everything he allows. There are stories laid out below him, and he watches them unfold as the loyal wind lifts him higher. Kāhu is pleased with what he observes. He tilts his head. His eyes are wide open. This is his domain.
And far below, we live our lives. We write our stories. We go about our business under sun and rain and clouds and wind. Under Kāhu’s gaze.
Under the big sky.
Echoes haunt these paddocks. I hear them on the wind — faraway shouts and whistles, the bark of a huntaway that lingers like receding thunder. Ghosts have stamped their indelible mark on the land, and I catch them sometimes from the corner of my eye. Their signature is all around us, in everything we do. I follow scattered footsteps, their presence like the invisible breeze that ruffles the grass.
The wind is intangible, but I feel it. On my face, in my hair. Reaching down my spine. I feel the dry heat that bakes the ground and melts the ranges. I sense the creeping cold that draws colour from the leaves and traces a square of frost in the shadow of the woolshed.
My brother, Mark, and I are the fifth generation of our family to farm this slash of ground nestled halfway between the Tararua Ranges and the sea. Our father, 82 years old, is still actively working every day. He will never retire. Farming has been the only life he has ever known, and his passion for the land and the animals we farm runs deep within the soil we tend.
I wonder if I will be the same when I am his age.
Occasionally I see glimpses of my grandfather in the gaps between fence posts and grazing sheep, a blurred recollection as if the land has a memory of its own. Grandad died when I was three months old; I know his face only from photos. His vacancy is filled by shifting clouds and open spaces, by birds and cattle and stoic sheep.
Two hundred and ninety hectares of land, bordered by the Ōroua River, is all that is left of what was once a much larger farm, eroded by circumstance and decisions and governments and banks. But we hold on to what we’ve got, digging our fingers deep into the soil like tōtara roots.
The sun stretches five lifetimes across these paddocks. I watch it glide over the grass, warming the white-crested heads of sheep as they graze. Magpies shuffle in the macrocarpas that emerge from the dawn, Kāhu sweeps low across the wheat, his wings slicing that thin strip between night and day.
Spur-winged plovers wheel circuits around the woolshed, their shrieks shredding the silence.
The pale moon slips down into the earth’s uncarved bones. There is work to be done. There is always work to be done.
My great-great-grandfather purchased this land in 1906. His son shaped it, crafted a life that continues with every new day. What he would think of the way we do things today? The horses that he loved, crucial for transport and ploughing and pulling and pushing, have been replaced by mechanical contraptions and combustion engines. Equipment is controlled by computer and guided by satellites. Genetics have altered livestock to survive specific conditions, to give predetermined numbers of offspring that are meatier, woollier, milkier.
Fertilisers help grow crops and grass that can keep up with demand as populations increase, and more food facilitates these populations to grow. Chemicals developed during human conflict now wage war on weeds and pests, creating larger crops to feed people. And when new weeds and pests arise from the ashes, stronger chemicals are developed.
Perhaps there would be little my great-great-grandfather would recognise today of the land he knew. The woolshed is still here, a towering sentinel built in 1898 by the farm’s previous owner using mataī cut down and milled on the land. The stopbanks my forebears constructed along the Ōroua River in 1906 remain, although they have been raised over the years. The river, however, has changed its course and refuses to be tamed. Some of the fence lines are the same, although the posts and battens and wires have been replaced. And some of the trees, their ancient gnarled trunks distorted by the wind, doggedly hold on in the relentless westerly.
The seasons are less clear. Smudged, and yet they still shape our farming lives. Take any decision ever made on the farm, strip it back and you will find the weather. The elements colour every day, and everything we do influences them. Air, water, earth. Fire. Farming cannot exist without them.
There is no denying the fact that who we were affects who we are, and who we are affects who we can be.
Echoes haunt these paddocks. Sometimes it pays to listen. Let them know we are still here.
I remember Dad swearing.
I remember the searing afternoon heat that shimmered the air over the wheat crop, distorting clusters of distant trees and sheds. School had finished for the day, I was free to do what I liked, and what I liked was to help Dad on the farm.
I remember the red combine harvester sitting squat and cumbersome in the middle of the paddock, its steel surfaces too hot to touch. My father said you could fry an egg on the steps if you wanted to. I wanted to. I needed to. It was the kind of challenge that couldn’t be ignored. I made a mental note to visit the chook run later.
Dad had his head and shoulders buried in the combine’s dark interior. His T-shirt rode up his back as he bent at the waist, a thin slash of skin shone in the sun. Dad’s swearing was an event, a trumpeting of action. A sign of manhood that I never heard at school or within earshot of Mum. In its profane depths lurked a masculinity I yearned to attain, as real as chest hairs and the smell of aftershave. There was power in the words he used, a forcefulness. Dad’s swearing was accompanied by the clang of metal on metal as he hammered whatever component had broken and brought the massive machine to a standstill. The words he used were short and sharp, staccato stabs that punctured the silence of the paddock.
I remember, more than anything else, how I wanted to swear like that one day. There was a magic to the phrases that transcended any obscenity. This was not swearing for the sake of it. These words, when shouted at just the right pitch and intensity, had the ability to bend and shape steel to my father’s will.
The combine’s shadow crept further across the golden wheat as Dad worked. I picked at a grain head, twisted it around my finger. The warm breeze carried a few blowflies, their swollen bodies defying aerodynamics as they looked for carcasses to lay their eggs on. Kāhu was also on the lookout for the dead as he drifted low over the crop.
‘Got ya, ya bastard!’ cried Dad. He wiggled and clawed his way out of the machine backwards, slowly emerging as if from a cocoon. Dust settled in his hair, and grease smudged his face. Clutched in his hand was a round chunk of metal with teeth etched around its edge.
‘Bloody cog is broken,’ he explained. I nodded, although I had no idea what he was talking about.
Dad tilted the cog in the light and chiselled at it with his thumb. There was a gap where one of the teeth should have been.
‘We need to get a new one,’ he said. ‘I’ve got some spare parts up at the workshop.’
The wheat stalks scratched at my legs as we trudged across the paddock to where the motorbike was propped against the gate. Not that there was a lot of leg to scratch. The top of my gumboots almost reached the bottom of my shorts, leaving just my knees to poke through. I rode behind Dad on the bike, and I could hear the dull thump of flies as they hit his chest. Sheep looked up from chewing grass, baffled by the sudden commotion. Cattle ran along the fence line, as if trying to race us, but we were too fast.
My eyes took a few minutes to get used to the cool darkness of the workshop. A grimy window above the oil-stained bench was the only source of light. Tools hung in neat rows along the walls, their outlines inked on wooden boards so we could tell if one was missing. Dad rummaged through boxes filled with pieces of machinery. I found it amazing that he knew where anything was, but his brain held an intricate map of every overflowing container. It didn’t matter what obscure part he was looking for, he could always find it without any problem. A neighbour once asked him for a camshaft sprocket to fit a 1953 McCormick International, and he had located it in an old Shell Motor Oil crate within minutes.
The workshop was a magical place for a boy to play. Spiders had spun triangular webs across dark corners, and mysterious tools occupied every available space. Their wooden handles were worn smooth and cold iron was pitted with age. Massive tyres, twice the size of me, leant against walls, and a plethora of chains, rubber belts, hoses, blades, grills, discs, tines and shafts were balanced and stacked on every flat surface. Jars and ice-cream containers packed with bolts, nuts and washers sat proudly on the workbench.
‘Aha!’ cried Dad. ‘Knew I had one here somewhere.’
He held a cog identical to the one he had taken from the combine, except this one had all of its teeth.
‘This is from an old Massey Ferguson 525, but it will do the trick,’ he said. ‘We’d better get back out there.’
The sun was slung lower in the sky by the time we got back to the paddock, and the air had cooled. I could touch the steel of the machine again, which meant any thoughts of cooking eggs would have to wait until tomorrow.
‘It always amazes me,’ said Dad as he reached up into the combine’s wide belly, ‘that something as small as this cog can bring this whole machine to a standstill.’
A couple of spur-winged plovers circled the water trough in the corner of the paddock. The hawk was now tucked regally on a fence post, watching us intently.
‘Have a look up here,’ said Dad, pointing up into the gloomy interior where he was working.
I poked my head into the combine’s metallic guts. The air smelled dusty, with a sweet tang of oil. Hundreds of mechanical components were bolted in place, a complicated maze of gears and pinions.
See the way all the parts fit snugly next to each other?’ said Dad. ‘Every cog interlocks with another cog. They turn belts and pulleys, which drive the blades that cut the wheat, as well as the grinders that strip the husks from the grain and the conveyors that carry the grain up to the tanks.’
Cylinders and rods, their long shafts worn smooth by thousands of hours of use, disappeared up into parts of the machine I couldn’t see.
‘It looks confusing, doesn’t it?’ asked Dad.
I nodded. There was no way I would ever work out what part did what. There seemed no logic, just a garbled jumble of bits and pieces.
‘It looks like a robot threw up,’ I agreed.
Dad laughed as he slid the new cog onto the end of a shaft.
‘Everything has its place,’ he said. His voice echoed slightly in the confined interior. ‘By itself, this cog doesn’t really look like much. It is nothing more than a chunk of ugly metal. But it is an integral part of the system. This cog feeds people. Without it, they would starve.’
Dad checked the cog was tight and then slid his spanner into the waistband of his shorts.
‘Spare parts make the world go round,’ he added as he ducked out of the machine.
A raucous volley of swearing erupted as he banged his head. The hawk lifted into the sky and spread its wings across distant brown hills.
The combine harvester is still here on the farm, but it hasn’t worked for years. It sits in the tractor shed under a thick crust of bird shit. Chains and belts and shafts lie on awnings and steps where they have been removed to repair. The hatch to the engine is propped open with a steel rod, nesting starlings have poked fistfuls of straw and grass into its mechanical depths.
The cogs have stopped turning.
I stood in front of the machine and looked up at its cab, the tall exhaust pipe, the auger that used to swing out over waiting trucks and dump grain out of the tanks. The blades that cut the wheat were still sharp, although puha and nettles now grew up between the gaps. I ran my fingers through the dust, leaving a streak across the cowling that revealed red paint.
Dad had used the machine for years to harvest the wheat and barley he grew. He taught my older brother, Mark, how to drive it, and then he taught me. There was an art to cutting the stalks at just the right height. Too short would result in nose diving the machine into the dirt. Cutting too high would leave good grain behind.
The combine started breaking down more and more over the years. Dad showed Mark and I how to maintain it, where to find the spare parts in the workshop. Mark was especially good at fixing things when they failed. He could trace any problem along moving parts until he found its source. I became an expert at handing him the right tools.
Over time the breakdowns became bigger, more complicated, more expensive. Spare parts had to be ordered from overseas, specialist mechanics performed intricate oil-soaked surgeries that were beyond even Dad’s skills. That is the nature of old machinery. Things fall off, disintegrate, go wrong. Cracks begin to show.
I remember watching Dad back the combine into the tractor shed after a harvesting season fraught with mishaps and broken pieces.
‘I think it is time to retire her,’ he said as the engine clicked and cooled and died. He placed his palm on the side of the machine in reassurance. The combine hasn’t moved since. We keep saying we should sell it, find it a home with someone who won’t overwork it and knows how to look after it. But it hasn’t happened yet.
I walked around the machine, its monolithic outline haunting the dark tractor shed, a testament to the ever-changing nature of farming. We employ contractors to harvest the crops now, their shiny big machines run by computers and navigated by GPS. Hours are no longer wasted tracing breakdowns to their origin, diagnostics are as simple as plugging a laptop into a socket. Spare parts are found on the internet, not hidden in wooden boxes.
The aroma of old oil stifled the air in the shed as my eyes adjusted to the dark. I tripped on something half-buried in the dirt floor and knelt down to examine it. The chunk of metal was solid and heavy, and I dug around it with my fingers. Scraping the rust off it, I recognised the round shape, the teeth etched around the edge. Memories of steel hot enough to fry eggs.
I weighed the cog in my palm. It looked strangely smaller in my hand now. Once a vital piece of the complicated machine, now redundant and forgotten. A monument to when farming was mechanical, crucial, tangible. I clasped it tightly and stood up.
My swearing echoed off the walls as I banged my head on the steps that led to the grain tanks.
I live in a house tucked behind the woolshed with my partner Kathrin. We’ve been together for over 15 years. One day we’ll get around to the whole marriage thing. Probably. There’s no hurry, and we’re happy the way we are.
We met when I spent a summer driving tour buses around New Zealand, and Kathrin was visiting from her home country of Germany. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a farmer at the time, so I tried my hand at a few other jobs. TV cameraman, cave guide, bus driver. The world beckoned with open arms, a welcome distraction from the isolation of the farm. I eventually found myself living in Germany with Kathrin for two years, and she called me her ultimate Kiwi souvenir.
Part of my visa required that I had to attend a German language school for six hours every weekday. It was fully immersive, and we weren’t allowed to speak English at all. Some of the teachers took an instant dislike to me. Turns out Kiwi humour doesn’t always translate well.
Although I came to love Germany, especially the small villages and towns, I found the cities overwhelming, and I sometimes wished I had a dog to muster the crowds. Open spaces called from over the sea, and when my visas finally ran out I asked if Kathrin would like to give farming a go. Mum and Dad and Mark were doing all of the work by themselves, and the struggle was clearly etched in their faces every time we Skyped, even though they told me everything was fine.
Kathrin agreed, although she had two stipulations. She wanted a golden retriever, and she wanted a deck for the farm cottage we were going to move in to. Oskar, our golden bundle of fur, arrived soon after we settled in. I’ll get around to building the deck one day. It’s a work in progress.
Moving to New Zealand was an incredible commitment for Kathrin, and she took to the rural lifestyle straight away despite never having lived on a farm before. She has an affinity with animals, and an interest in natural animal health. Leaving her parents and family behind was a huge decision, and she was heartbroken when her father passed away four months after she arrived on the farm. The last time she saw him was at the airport, and nothing will ever fill the hole he left. As she says, you never get over grief, you just learn to live with it and savour the memories.
Kathrin’s love of animals also led her to become a vegetarian. She had slowly eaten less meat over a few years, no longer enjoying the texture and taste. When she finally asked me what I would think if she cut meat out of her diet altogether, I told her to go for it.
‘If you don’t want to eat meat, just don’t eat it,’ I said. ‘Life is too short to do something you don’t want to do.’
Kathrin knows it is hard for some people to understand the fact she is a vegetarian living on a sheep and beef farm, but she is more interested in ensuring farmers look after their livestock, and that people who eat meat don’t waste food.
Mum and Dad still can’t quite get their heads around it.
‘But you still eat fish and chips, don’t you?’ Mum asks every so often. ‘And chicken?’
Kathrin just grins. She’s happy exactly the way she is, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
‘Bloody weather forecasters.’ Dad’s voice carried over the empty paddocks. ‘They predicted rain for us today. But we’re the only place in the country that’s not getting any.’
It was a typical overgeneralisation, but was also true. Purple clouds bruised the land north of where we stood, bringing much needed moisture to the Manawatū and beyond. Sheets of water fell to the south of us, dragging a grey blanket across the ranges. This had happened frequently this year, a forecast of certain rain followed by bitter disappointment. We were starting to feel like a rock in a river, with the water curving around us while the farm remained high and dry.
‘There is an art to predicting weather,’ continued Dad. ‘The same as any other profession based on creative imagination.’
My phone lit up in my hand. The screen was full of weather apps, each designed to give precise forecasts based on our exact geographic location. They all gave different predictions. There were several general weather apps, as well as apps to calculate and project rainfall, wind speed, sunshine hours, temperature fluctuations, frosts, snowfall, cloud cover, thunderstorms, lightning strikes, cyclone tracking, pressure variations, isobar analysis and even sea tides.
‘What the hell do sea tides have to do with anything?’ asked Dad.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘In case we want to farm fish.’
‘What’s an app, anyway?’
‘It’s short for application. It is a piece of software you download onto your phone that allows you to do specific tasks.’
Dad stared at me blankly.
‘I’ve got numbers on my phone,’ he said. ‘But I don’t call them numbs.’
Dad still had a flip phone he had bought over ten years ago, and he had to hold it at arm’s length and squint just to see the screen. After the weather and the dog, it was one of the most-sworn-at things on the farm. Mark also had an old flip phone. Kathrin and I were the only people on the farm with smartphones. We’d already replaced them several times. The flip phones never died.
‘I could have told you it was going to be a dry summer months ago,’ said Dad. He leaned heavily against the cattle yard rails. The black steers watched through the rails, their faces bleak, emotionless, uncomprehending.
‘The cabbage trees flowered early,’ he continued. ‘My father reckoned that was a sure-fire way of predicting a long hot season. And the pōhutukawa flowered from the bottom branches upwards. Flowering from the top down means it will be cold.’
I looked out across the brown paddocks. Sheep pushed their noses into clumps of rank grass to graze anything that may still be green underneath. The proud shape of a shag sat upright on a post by the duck pond, watching the water evaporate into a haze. Maize leaves wilted and hung flaccidly. Emasculated pasture smudged the fields, collapsing under its own weight.
The weather affected everything we did on the farm, and it was seldom exactly right. There was no point moaning about it, we just had to take what we were given and do our best. The food we produced would go on to feed people around the country, possibly around the world, and every time our cog turned, other cogs turned as well. The food we grew would potentially nourish the leaders of tomorrow. Sometimes it felt like we were the guardians of other people’s stories. Everything they did with their lives, every achievement, was fuelled by food that depended on the choices we as farmers made, both on a daily basis and over time.
Thinking like that sometimes made me swell with pride, and occasionally crushed me under the weight of responsibility.
‘What does that app thing of yours say about the weather for the rest of the week?’ asked Dad. Sam, his Border collie, lay in Dad’s long shadow to escape the sun.
‘MetService reckons rain for us overnight,’ I replied, swiping my phone and smearing a thin veneer of dirt across the screen. ‘WeatherWatch says no rain. Google Weather is hedging its bets by saying there’s a fifty per cent chance of rain. This app is telling me to beware of a three-metre swell beyond Kāpiti, with a northerly of twenty knots rising to twenty-five and becoming gale force around Stewart Island. Oh, and this one says it is snowing in Luxembourg.’
Dad looked up at the sky.
‘I bet those Luxembourgers wished they had some cabbage trees right now,’ he said.
The cattle in the yards snorted and stamped, obscuring with dust the line of willows and the ever-present magpies.
‘These bloody cattle aren’t going to sort themselves,’ he said suddenly. ‘You’d better get them done before we either flood or burn to a crisp.’
Sam followed Dad as he drove back towards the woolshed, leaving Mark and I in the haze.
Later that day, Dad sat in the big chair by the window of the homestead and gazed out at the garden. The grass was dry and brown, relentlessly burnt by the sun, and the trees planted by my great-grandfather swayed in the wind. The desiccated stub of a small shrub stood beside the birdbath, a victim of last winter’s frosts.
Four seasons could be seen from that window. Dad stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles. I handed him a cup of tea, which he took in his large, hooked hands.
‘What are you up to?’ I asked, sinking into the chair opposite. I could hear the hollow, soapy thonks and donks of dishes and pots as Mum shuffled around in the kitchen. She was going out to meet friends soon, and her hustle and bustle echoed through the house.
‘I’m watching the weather,’ replied Dad.
His hands curled around the steaming mug, creases and cracks etched into his fingers. Dirt had stained meandering lines on his skin, like rivers on a topographical map, and age spots splashed dark against wide pores.
‘I see you’ve got the old photo album out,’ I said, pointing at the book that lay open over his knees.
The farm album contained photos that stretched right back to when my great-great-grandfather bought the farm. It was an incredible record of where we had been, tracing the changes on the farm over 115 years.
I watched as Dad flicked one of the pages over, photos the colour of old bone mounted on black paper.
‘It’s good to remind ourselves where we have come from,’ said Dad. The trees outside bent in the wind like sloped writing, and the rain to the north inched closer, remaining tantalisingly out of reach. The sun wasn’t in a hurry to give up its spot.
‘I’ve spent most of my life with one eye on the weather, and the other on the past,’ continued Dad. ‘It’s a wonder I’m not cross-eyed and falling over things.’
He shut the book and held it out to me.
‘Here, take it,’ he said.
I looked at Dad’s hands as he thrust the photo album towards me, and I saw the years slide off them. These were hands that had gripped axes and spanners and hammers, split wood and tightened wires. Driven staples into posts and battens. Hands softened by lanolin and roughened by weather, toughened by wind and leather. Hands that worked soil and fed people around the world he had never met in places he had never visited.
In that moment, I realised he was giving me much more than just a photo album. He was passing on the history and lineage of the family name. The opportunity to plan where we were going by seeing where we had been.
The knowledge to rectify old mistakes and the courage to make my own.
From his hands to mine.
The setting sun threw a sepia fleece across paddocks, trees, sheds and sheep. Shadows of grazing cattle stretched over the grass.
I had spent the rest of the day repairing fences, fixing holes where sheep had pushed through. The grass wasn’t any greener on the other side, but the ewes had an inherent need to slip through gaps. They left wool hanging on the wires like washing flapping in the westerly.
I found Dad leaning on a fence post, staring out at the sun as the day dismantled itself and slipped into twilight. For a second it was impossible to distinguish him from the photos of Grandad and my great-grandfather. His outline was as jagged as the line of ranges behind us. Silhouetted in amber light, hunched over the tōtara post, it was as if time had never moved on.
‘Red sky at night,’ said Dad without turning. ‘You know what that means.’
Crimson splashed across the sky as the sun sank behind a long row of macrocarpas. Ducks flew overhead, a perfect V-formation that pointed north to Mount Ruapehu as stars revealed themselves in the clear sky. Somewhere a tractor chugged, chopping silage to be baled the next day.
‘Shepherd’s delight,’ he continued. ‘Although it’s not exactly delightful when you want a bit of rain.’
The fence sagged as I leant next to him, the wires creaking, drooping, stretching. Parched paddocks swept in every direction, brown squares of wilted grass and golden wheat. The rhythmic quacking of ducks faded into the clustering darkness.
‘The sky can be a fickle prophet,’ Dad added, his voice fog thick and deep. ‘That old rhyme isn’t always true. I should know, I’ve seen enough sunsets in my time.’
The sun seemed to hang on the horizon for a moment, as if it wasn’t quite ready to let go. I looked up at the wispy clouds high above the hills as they blazed a trail to wherever they were heading. Unlike the sun, they weren’t sticking around. Plovers orbited the paddock, and the sun, plump and red, seemed to grow bigger just before it disappeared.
Dad has always been obsessed with the weather. Most farmers are. Conversations often start with ‘How much rain did you get last night?’ The rain gauge is one of the most used and quoted pieces of equipment on any farm. Dad had worked in all sorts of weather over the years. He’d absorbed rain and wind and sun and cold, he knew how they fitted together. Dad’s passed some of that knowledge down to me in small dollops, letting me see for myself how the world turns.
‘Always watch the clouds,’ he once told me. ‘If they move in a different direction to the wind on the ground, the weather is about to change.’
Dad taught me more about the practicalities of weather than I ever learnt at school, where teachers were preoccupied with katabatic winds over Antarctica and how the Sahara Desert was made. He explained that vapour trails in the sky left by aeroplanes meant the atmosphere was becoming humid and a low was most likely swinging in, and that tall clouds bring bigger raindrops because the frozen moisture that gathers at the top becomes too heavy for the cloud to hold.
‘But things are changing,’ he said as the sun’s last sliver slid behind trees, and shadows took their places for the night. ‘The weather is getting harder to predict. It’s like the old rules, the ones set by nature, are no longer correct.’
I knew what he meant. Droughts had become more common and lasted for longer. Storms were more intense and frequent. I had seen quite a few 50-year floods over the last decade.
‘The climate is the single most important thing that affects our ability to feed people,’ said Dad as the fat white stars scattered themselves above us. ‘There are more people to feed than ever before, and the weather is becoming unpredictable. Something has to change.’
The earth turned on its axis, spreading night across the farm. Dad straightened his back and walked back towards the woolshed as we hurtled around the sun, tethered to one place but travelling a billion kilometres every year.
The last glow faded from the sky, and I realised Dad had travelled 82 billion kilometres in his lifetime.
Not bad for someone who said he never left the farm where he was born.
It was too hot to sleep. The floorboards creaked and groaned as I walked down the hall, leaving Kathrin in bed. Oskar was spreadeagled on the lino in the kitchen. I’d left the door open to let some cool air in, a fine mesh screen stopping any mosquitoes.
The light flared when I switched it on, searing my tired retinas. The photo album Dad had given me lay on the table, its brown cardboard cover cracked like aged skin. I sat down and flicked it open, the smell of old paper infusing the warm night air.
The pictures made me think of souls caught in webs, moments stuck in time. People forced to do whatever they were doing forever and ever in black and white, never given a break. They stared back at me with impassive eyes.
The oldest photo was dated 1899, seven years before my great-great-grandfather bought the farm. It was taken inside the woolshed, the wood still new and bright. Shearers were busy at work, ten of them along both sides of the board, curled around fat ewes, while holding blades that looked like oversized scissors. They all wore light-coloured shirts and dark trousers with suspenders that hooked over their shoulders.
A dazzling halo of light spilled from the open door at the far end of the shed.
Wool was stacked in a mountainous pile in the centre of the shearing board, more was stuffed in bins and alcoves. A few of the shearers turned their faces up towards the camera, their expressions puzzled and wary. Except for one, who wore a cheeky grin. The joker of the gang, the trouble-maker. There’s always one.
Sheep skins were hung over every beam and rail. The sheep they came from would have fed the families of the workers, the remains boiled and rendered to fat.
In the centre of the photo stood a tall man dressed in tight dark trousers, a dark shirt,a coal-coloured waistcoat. A black cowboy hat. He stared directly at the camera with ebony eyes, arms folded. Relaxed. Confident. A thin moustache matched his obsidian hair. He was completely in focus, the only person in frame whose features were not slightly smeared. I wondered who he was, and reminded myself that these people no longer existed. The shed was the same, but the people were long gone. It is easy to forget that these people were real. They lived. They loved. They died. But the photo renders them immortal.
Apart from the mechanisation of the shearing plants and the fashion, this photo could have been taken today. These could be the same shearers who come to work at the farm now. The same sheep. I stared at the photo and felt history collapse around me, sinew and muscle and the greasy smell of lanolin stretched unchanged over the years. All of the things that had happened between then and now, the births and deaths and wars and floods and droughts, were forgotten. We tread the same earth, we’re bound together by the same elements. Nothing is more important to farmers than fire, air, water and earth. They are the constraints we must work within, but we are also their custodians. Without them, there would be no farms. No food.
I heard Oskar’s claws scratch across the lino as he got up and stretched. A dim glow of light touched the ranges, slowly opening to reveal a new day. Birds began to wake, jingling morning songs like the tinkle of water over rocks. Magpies babbled and crowed. There was no point in going back to bed now. I shut the photo album. There was work to be done.
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