'We dread the onslaught of summer'

Drought contains, within those seven letters, a world of pain and heartache and grief for farming communities and the regional towns and cities that depend on them.

Dust storms sweep farms near Balranald in south west NSW as drought impacts the region.

Photo: Nick Moir

For the farmers, there is the grief of seeing their animals die, of seeing the rivers and creeks sink into their beds and disappear, the pain of brutal economics that sees money pouring always outwards. The desperate scrabble to keep stock on their feet, up early in the morning to distribute what feed remains; the glances to the sky in search of clouds, then dragging their gaze back to the harshness of dust under their feet. The watching of the radar when rain is forecast, only to see that hope evaporate like the water in their dams. A drought in winter is particularly harsh - the loss of pregnant and feeding ewes and the lambs, and the calves and cows - new life being created only to die in the dust.

But there is a universal heartache felt across the countryside - because the country itself is dying in this drought.

The grasses were the first to go, turning brown and crackly underfoot, then shrivelling and blowing away on the breeze. As the months rolled on, the young trees started to turn brown - at first just a few leaves, nothing surprising, then gradually the saplings died, skeletons of pale grey with crackling brown leaves hanging like old Christmas decorations. Then the older trees on the ridgelines started - leaves, then a branch or two, then, almost overnight, none of the grey-green leaves were left. And these were native trees, gums, hardy and drought-resistant, which have shaken off previous hot, dry seasons with a toss of their wind-blown branches. But not now. Now their leaves hang, dry and lifeless.

The kangaroos and wallabies have been driven out of the hills. Normally only seen in the early morning or evening, they are visible at all hours, feeding non-stop on the native dead grass, hopping into the towns and cities and frontyards of homes, hanging around the roadside - and dying there, hit by cars.

The water carriers are running constantly, rumbling up and down the roads around the towns and cities. The homes on tank water have been buying truckloads regularly, eking it out as long as possible, catching the cold beginnings of the hot tap water to put back into the tanks, turning off the water while lathering hair and body, rinsing off as quickly as possible. No one remembers what a long hot shower is like. There is no frost, there is no moisture in the air to make it.

Little water left to pump from the Namoi River near Wee Waa in northern NSW.

Photo: Nick Moir

The nights seem so much quieter, there are no frogs to be heard. The smaller animals seem to have vanished, even the possums aren’t growling and hissing in the trees. We leave water from our tanks out for whatever is still there, hoping that the little gliders and bearded dragons and echidnas are surviving somehow.

The treasured gardens are suffering losses - beautiful trees, treasured shrubs, precious flowering plants. Each one a record of a time past, when rain fell from the skies and water ran in the creeks. Each one a memory of watching the growth, looking at photos and marvelling at the changes - and each one, as it dies, another stab to the heart of those who cherished it.

We have lost so much beauty from our lives. We have forgotten what green grass looks like. We miss the sound of the rain on the metal roof, we miss the sparkling of the frosts and the other-worldliness of the fogs. We fear for our gardens, our livelihoods, and our country. We dread the loss of forests and trees, of our fragile wildlife , our way of life. And we dread the onslaught of summer, the smell of smoke and the red glow in the sky.

Alison Harris is

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