Visiting Gunnedah in North-West New South Wales, it is easy to understand why the late Australian poet and novelist Dorothea Mackellar OBE gained inspiration from the country. Her family owned farms in the area and, a proficient horse rider, she spent much time traversing "the wide brown land for me".
There are awards and health centres and motels and statues and streets and a national poetry competition for school students celebrating her life and work. They acknowledge her brilliance. However, they also understand the importance of her legacy to the region's economy.
Born on 1 July 1885 at Point Piper, Sydney, into a privileged family, Mackellar was a trailblazer. Women of 21 years of age only gained the vote in federal and state elections in 1902. But by 1904 Mackellar, homesick while visiting England and only 19 years of age, began penning her most famous piece: My Country, originally titled Core of My Heart. The poem was first published in the weekly Spectator magazine in London in 1908.
Of course, the second stanza is most famous and often recited by leaders keen to remind us of Australia's long history facing natural challenges and disasters.
"I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains," Mackellar wrote.
Yet, in 2020, and poignantly, the fifth stanza resonates more strongly with me:
"Core of my heart, my country.
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold -
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze. Core of my heart, my country!"
Water holes, creeks, and dams are dry. Any water still captured is stagnate. Mosquitos are content and disease is rife. Any water dropped on the dry earth does not provide a desperately needed drink, rather it splatters like a butterfly symmetry painting.
Now, Mrs W fancies a magazine. Entering Gunnedah newsagency in search of Marie Claire, I am dubious rather than hopeful. Yet, and to my amazement, there are multiple copies.
The newsagent tells me their dam, at home, dried up more than 12 months ago, but the bore water tastes OK. I don't know what to say in response, so I inadequately provide understanding with shocked body language.
There is, of course, a human element to the drought and fires. People have died, families have lost their homes and livelihood, and sadness and trauma and worry will continue for a significant period. Federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese is correct to suggest an increase in counselling resources as students head back to school.
The newsagent also tells me there has not been substantial rain for between four to five years. Farmers are trucking in feed and water to keep alive the few remaining stock they own. They are surviving off debt.
The wind whips the red dirt around your thongs as you appreciate the quietness of evening; it is like sandpaper. It is hot and feels like fire. The resultant dust envelopes and sticks to everything.
On your body, your ears, your mouth, your nose, and clothes and feet and hair, and even on the keyboard as I type - it is so desperately dry. There is not an appliance or crevice or item of sleeping linen that is safe from the grit. Master 11 and I don't care much for it - antihistamines are our friends.
The patches of green you spot are weeds. A mirage of survivors in the harshest conditions. It is known as a green drought. The dust spirals like a tornado. The wind heralds the evening, so different to home where late afternoons provide shelter and a reprieve. It stirs the dirt and a dust storm is the result.
The trucks are endless. Square bales with rounds underneath; packed to capacity to assist those in need. Smoke on the horizon has been replaced by dust in the sky. The Burrumbuttock Hay Run has been in operation since 2014. On Australia Day 2020 they will complete their 15th run providing stock feed to drought affected farmers in New South Wales and Queensland.
"An opal-hearted country,
A willful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand."
Dear Ms Dorothea Mackellar OBE,
I love yet I no longer understand.