empty landscapes

I went on a 4 day photo trip into the South Australian Mallee with Gilbert Roe last week.  We travelled on the Karoonda Highway to Loxton, camped  Monday to Thursday in the caravan park by the River Murray and   made individual day trips south  into Mallee country from our base. The season of the lazy hazy autumn days  finally finished whilst  when we were camping at Loxton. It rained quite a lot on the first couple of nights we we’re there.

I explored along the Stott Highway, which runs from Loxton to Swan Reach,   wandering along unsealed  roads that ran east west  in  the  Wunkar, Mantung,   Galga and Wanbi  region.   I’d briefly checked out this area  on a recent day trip,   and I wanted to explore  the  area around Mantung  in greater depth. This is limestone country. It is very dry and quite harsh, as very little rainfall recharges  the underlying limestone aquifer.  The main recharge is rainfall in south western Victoria and the water  slowly moves in a north westerly direction via  Pinnaroo and Murrayville towards Loxton and  the River Murray, which acts as a drain for all the aquifers in the Murray Basin.

As the slow moving underground water moves through the limestone aquifer  it dissolves soluble salts  and becomes increasingly saline. Some of the biggest salt loads to the River Murray come from the Mallee Region–due to land clearing — whilst the future increases in the salt load into the river  can be lessened through changes in agriculture in the dryland areas of the Mallee Region.  Changes means increased revegetation, but conservation farming practices had not been widely adopted across the region, and so there is soil degradation,  surface soil loss, rising water tables  and increased erosion. The CSIRO ’s climate change research forecasts a dramatic rise in extreme weather events such as droughts and heatwaves, and a sharp drop in winter and spring rainfall across southern Australia.

The area I was in is on the western edge of the limestone aquifer and it  was  a region of drylands farming that has been deeply impacted by the drought in the first decade of the 21st century.     I’d spent most of  the  day   on Wednesday and Thursday photographing,  and I hardly saw one car and a tractor in a field on each day.This part of the South Australia Mallee is an empty landscape. It has been de-populated. The farms are increasingly corporate as a result of the  process of amalgamation of small holdings  and people live in Loxton and travel to work on the farm each day. The commute is about 30 minutes. 

An example of the  process of depopulation in this landscape the East Murray  Area School, which  used to have around 270 pupils in the 1960s and  now it has 19 pupils.   The schools future would have to be  in doubt as the farmers in the region are in their 50’s and 60’s and the children leave the area for better jobs and higher  income. People leave rural areas and small towns because technological and economic changes in the rural sector have brought about fewer employment opportunities, which in turn has led to a reduced need for goods and services and even fewer employment opportunities.

 The social fabric of the community in this region is held together by the women who are in their 50s and 60s. I could see this with  the post Anzac Day celebrations at the Mantung Hall: a community gathering around lunch and an exhibition of Mrs Bartel’s wedding dresses for  History Week. The bonds that held the community together were still strong, judging by the social interactions amongst the  older women and their shared conversations. Their lives appeared to be tightly knit,   the women cared for one another, and they enjoyed the time spent with their friends.
They welcomed strangers such as myself and invited me to  share their food.  Mantung Hall  was the centre of community life,  there was a sense of civic engagement in organising  the wedding dress exhibition and  ensuring that the  built heritage of the area is retained and a strong sense of   the commons, or the shared aspects of public life that impact  all people.
This form of community life is what is ebbing and fraying in the Mallee as the region becomes ever more depopulated and there is an increasingly unequal distribution of income.  Under a neo-liberal mode of governance that seeks to undermine  the welfare a state those living in the Mallee  have been left to largely look after themselves. With few playground and parks,  no public libraries, limited mobile reception and no public services  in these small towns the social fabric that holds the community together  is being stretched. Neo-liberalism also negates prioritising women’s experiences, expertise and knowledge. They are rendered invisible.
How far can  these social bonds  be stretched with increasing climate change?  How long can these women ensure  that the members of their community remained socially connected? How long before they leave the district completely?

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  • […] and white photos with a large format camera and   whilst exploring this area of the Mallee on the Loxton photo camp in late April  I returned to the places I had  photographed in the 1980s to see what had […]

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