I tell stories, in pictures.
At the end of the third Spring of the long drought in November 2019, as someone with a lifetime passion for the value of visual record, I wanted to document the different effects of the punishing dry on land.
It had left cattle and sheep flocks decimated and local farmers reeling from the costs of carted feed across Wingecarribee Shire and Wollondilly to our north. We should never forget.
On November 28, 2019 I started making pictures of the land west of the Hume Highway at Canyonleigh. I concluded my journey at Mt Murray on the edge of the escarpment to the east. In most cases I simply stopped at a safe spot on the road and recorded the view.
As a lifetime city dweller, with only four years as a Highlands resident, I had little understanding of the real impacts on the land of sustained drought. After all, food remains available in supermarkets, price the main variable, no matter what.
If you are a producer or grower it's so very different.
A farmer uses up all their available feed, and then buys more, before they have no other choice but to part with their herd or flock when they can't feed them any longer, when the money dries up.
Failed crops sown a few months earlier lie withering in the dusty shifting dry topsoil. The agriculture supply industry sees empty showrooms. The main street in town sees yet another 'To Let' sign go up as a shop that's served generations of the community finally has to call it a day.
By the end of November 2019, the weather station at Moss Vale had recorded just 386.2mm of rain, the lowest recorded rainfall in the preceding 19 years. Only a further 3.6mm fell in December. It was brutal.
On November 12, 2019 a Catastrophic Fire Danger alert was posted for Greater Sydney. An unprecedented two spring dust storms had rolled across the shire producing sustained reduced air quality in the Highlands.
By December 6 three main fire fronts to the north across a 50km front stretched from Kanangra Boyd National Park in the north west of our shire to Oakdale, east of Warragamba Dam in Wollondilly shire.
Wingecarribee recorded air quality with pollution several times higher than World Health Organisation (WHO) safe limits. Day after day the sound of helicopters flying overhead, based at the Mittagong Aero Club air strip, became something of both dread and potential salvation.
The first hint of rain came on February 3. 3.6mm!
On February 7 for 11 of the following 13 days a total of 271.1mm was recorded at Moss Vale weather station. 70 per cent of the prior total year's rainfall. The drought had broken. The Morton fire was declared out.
For those who lost crops, herds, flocks, homes, sheds and other possessions, the memory of those times remains vivid, painful - unforgettable. For families who lost loved ones the depth of loss is incalculable.
These 2019 pictures remind us of where we were a year ago.
The pictures of 2020 made on the same day last week can encourage us.
A year later the land is being restored. In the picture of hay bales taken on November 28, 2020, there is no equivalent image from the previous year. There were no crops. A second crop may well develop over summer 2021. I couldn't locate the landowner for permission to access their property. Please forgive my careful trespass.
In the two images made at the Partridge VC Rest stop on the southbound side of the Hume Highway in Wollondilly there is perhaps the greatest encouragement of the possibility for renewal and restoration. Water is precious, to be conserved and valued. Our land is "rich and fair". But it can be so cruel and unforgiving, too.
We should learn from the hardship. Each of us must take community-wide steps through improved personal actions to deal with climate impacts through strengthened conservation, restoration and enriching our lands, even if it's only our own garden.
The practises of Peter Andrews OAM and other regenerative farmers give us the clue. All of us have a part to play.
2020 has thrown pretty much everything at us that's possible: Drought, fire, flooding rain and pestilence (COVID).
As we approach 2021 let us properly value each element in our society and our lands that makes our Wingecarribee community so vital, so precious, so.... us!
Community Links Wellbeing are offering free counselling for anyone impacted by the bushfires. If reading this article has upset you or brought up memories you would like to discuss, please contact the Community Links Wellbeing mental health intake number 0455 104 104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
More of John Swainston's work can be seen at his blog site at johnswainston.com. He can be found on both Facebook under his name and on Instagram as ozjohns. Through 2020 and 2021 John has been documenting a year in the life of Retford Park, the National Trust (NSW) property that will also house the forthcoming Ngunungulla Southern Highlands Regional Art Gallery in the old Dairy Building adjacent to the main house and gardens. John starts a new weekly program on Highland FM 107.1 in January, provisionally called Sunday Highland Classics commencing each Sunday at 2.00pm.
Pictures supplied pro-bono for exclusive use of Southern Highland News. If syndication is required, normal MEAA rates would apply.
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