Paul van Kan has been spending a lot of time in the dryest parts of Australia, in far Western Queensland. I asked him to share his thoughts on the state of our dry country and what we can do to get through this drought.
Texts by Paul van Kan
Australia is a country familiar with extreme weather, in some ways it feels like a part of the identity of the Australian lands. Roaring bushfires and flash floods are part for the course in some parts and we’ve been dried up by drought at times for well over 400 years. Despite this past, it is becoming more clear that recent drought and weather extremes are unprecedented and without some drastic changes, we might not have any soil worth watering left.
Some of the people most intimately affected by the harshest of these elements are the farmers and growers of our land. Our current and introduced farming practices may not have been what best suited the soil and lands of Australia and the recent drought has brought well into the spotlight that it’s worth looking at some alternatives.
Here at Gobe, we’re interested in championing those who are using their skills and knowledge to greater reduce the impact we have on our lands. Not only the farmers that are looking at alternative methods and sustainable practices, but also those who are helping to educate the rest of Australia and bring to light what is becoming clearly evident, the Australian climate is changing, and we need to change with it.
Paul van Kan, a photo and video journalist from Sydney is doing exactly that. He has been spending his time in the Queensland desert and listening first hand to those who have had their lives decimated by the drought. Documenting the extreme weather and the change that it is unfurling before him. Giving a voice to those who have been taught to shut up and work harder, and those who are thinking outside of the norm and approaching land management from a holistic viewpoint.
Paul has taken some time to tell us why he does what he does and why he thinks it’s an important story to tell.
We are going through the worst drought Australia has seen in 125 years. The people most affected by these weather anomalies are our farmers, but their voices go unheard most of the time. One thing they all have in common is the wait for rains. However, their stories are all vastly different.
With the drought worsening and no signs of these extreme weather patterns changing in the near future, I feel it is important to create awareness amongst Australians about the issues our land and our farmers are facing. Due to the solitary nature in which most farmers generally do their work, their pain is not heard of or acknowledged. They often find themselves in isolation, alone with their struggles. Despite their nature to be tight-lipped about their feelings, it could mean the difference between life or death, for their stories to be heard.
I am drawn to imagery as a medium to tell a story. A picture can tell a thousand words, which we have all heard before. A powerful image also can travel across nations and overcome language boundaries to deliver its impact. I have spent years documenting the drought in far west Queensland and witnessed the severity of conditions faced by these cattle farmers and their livestock. I have seen a farmer, in a desperate measure to salvage his cattle — skin and bones, spray molasses on piles of sticks, while he waited for the ever elusive rains to come.
“The toll that kind of lifestyle has on a person is enough to cripple a human, yet they managed to crack a can of beer at the end of an afternoon and laugh it off like ‘it ain’t no thing’.”
Australian farmers are some of the toughest breed of humans I have come across. Having spent a great deal of time documenting their lives, I have experienced the enormous physical and emotional stress inflicted upon themselves and their families, while attempting to run a farm on land that isn’t yielding. The toll that kind of lifestyle has on a person is enough to cripple a human, yet they managed to crack a can of beer at the end of an afternoon and laugh it off like ‘it ain’t no thing’. Even though our Australian farmers’ resilience and positive attitudes in such dark times are awe-inspiring, burying their emotions and lack of avenues to share their burdens has the potential to be destructive. Many have endured hardship faced from these drought-stricken times for too long, too quietly. The magnitude of this stress has lead to loss of precious life. The more stories that are shared of this hardship, the more apparent it becomes that these farmers must open up and talk about their lives, their troubles and be given an avenue for expressing their feelings about the drought. This is a big driving force behind my passion to shoot these kinds of stories. I think it is deeply ingrained in the Aussie battler psyche to suck it up and keep moving forward. “Don’t have a whinge mate”… which may not be leading to the best possible outcome for our country men and women.
RAIN FROM NOWHERE .
His cattle didn’t get a bid, they were fairly bloody poor,
What was he going to do? He couldn’t feed them anymore,
The dams were all but dry, hay was thirteen bucks a bale,
Last month’s talk of rain was just a fairytale,
His credit had run out, no chance to pay what’s owed,
Bad thoughts ran through his head as he drove down Gully Road.
“Geez, great grandad bought the place back in 1898,
Now I’m such a useless bastard, I’ll have to shut the gate.
Can’t support my wife and kids, not like dad and those before,
Crikey, Grandma kept it going while Pop fought in the war.”
With depression now his master, he abandoned what was right,
There’s no place in life for failures, he’d end it all tonight.
There were still some things to do, he’d have to shoot the cattle first,
Of all the jobs he’d ever done, that would be the worst.
He’d have a shower, watch the news, then they’d all sit down for tea
Read his kids a bedtime story, watch some more TV,
Kiss his wife goodnight, say he was off to shoot some roos
Then in a paddock far away he’d blow away the blues.
But he drove in the gate and stopped – as he always had
To check the roadside mailbox – and found a letter from his Dad.
Now his dad was not a writer, Mum did all the cards and mail
But he knew the writing from the notebooks that he’d kept from cattle sales,
He sensed the nature of its contents, felt moisture in his eyes,
Just the fact his dad had written was enough to make him cry.
“Son, I know it’s bloody tough, it’s a cruel and twisted game,
This life upon the land when you’re screaming out for rain,
There’s no candle in the darkness, not a single speck of light
But don’t let the demon get you, you have to do what’s right,
I don’t know what’s in your head but push the bad thoughts well away
See, you’ll always have your family at the back end of the day
You have to talk to someone, and yes I know I rarely did
But you have to think about Fiona and think about the kids.
I’m worried about you son, you haven’t rung for quite a while,
I know the road you’re on ‘cause I’ve walked every bloody mile.
The date? December 7 back in 1983,
Behind the shed I had the shotgun rested in the brigalow tree.
See, I’d borrowed way too much to buy the Johnson place
Then it didn’t rain for years and we got bombed by interest rates,
The bank was at the door, I didn’t think I had a choice,
I began to squeeze the trigger – that’s when I heard your voice.
You said ‘Where are you Daddy? It’s time to play our game’
’ I’ve got Squatter all set up, we might get General Rain.’
It really was that close, you’re the one that stopped me son,
And you’re the one that taught me there’s no answer in a gun.
Just remember people love you, good friends won’t let you down.
Look, you might have to swallow pride and take that job in town,
Just ’til things come good, son, you’ve always got a choice
And when you get this letter ring me, ’cause I’d love to hear your voice.”
Well he cried and laughed and shook his head then put the truck in gear,
Shut his eyes and hugged his dad in a vision that was clear,
Dropped the cattle at the yards, put the truck away
Filled the troughs the best he could and fed his last ten bales of hay.
Then he strode towards the homestead, shoulders back and head held high,
He still knew the road was tough but there was purpose in his eye.
He called his wife and children, who’d lived through all his pain,
Hugs said more than words – he’d come back to them again,
They talked of silver linings, how good times always follow bad,
Then he walked towards the phone, picked it up and rang his Dad.
And while the kids set up the Squatter, he hugged his wife again,
Then they heard the roll of thunder and they smelt the smell of rain.
AUTHOR—Murray Hugh Hartin
“There is a deep and persistent part of me that wants to throw itself into real situations, involving real people in our country, who are in desperate need for a voice to tell their tales.”
As a freelance creative, I have developed the habit of always saying YES to jobs that pay the bills, regardless of their alignment with my beliefs — a common exercise most freelancers will agree to practicing. More recently, however, there is a deep and persistent part of me that wants to throw itself into real situations, involving real people in our country, who are in desperate need for a voice to tell their tales. While I am incredibly grateful for the interesting and challenging projects I do work on regularly, for clients whose ethos I wholeheartedly support, there is nothing that nourishes my soul more than telling real stories. I believe it is important as a creative to feel that your true calling is being fulfilled through your work, whether or not it may be the smartest financial endeavour. Hence, I find myself travelling to remote parts of Australia every chance I get. If you seek real Australian stories, it is these landscapes that hold them, without many ears out there to listen. Change on this planet and within our human psyche will only happen as more attention is diverted towards the issues at hand.
Recently, there has been increasing amounts of media attention on the Australian droughts, particularly in NSW. However, the majority of such content focuses on devastating stories of farmers needing aid to get them through hard times. While it is amazing how supportive our country can be when such stories are covered and shared, it is also equally important to share positive stories to showcase the farmers’ strength and empower them.
Through the wonderful ways of social media, and our mutual passion for the Australian landscapes, I have connected with a solid human who has a positive outlook on the drought. Khory Hancock goes by the Instagram handle of @environmental_cowboy. Having grown up on a cattle farm himself, he has seen first hand the despair a farming family can run into when working with the elements and land. Khory has studied Environmental Science, had an eight-year career in Environmental Sustainability in the Gold Coast, and has now made it his plight to share his wealth of knowledge in alternative and sustainable farming techniques to farmers. This not only has the potential to save lives but also save and regenerate our beautiful country’s soil.
Khory and I have teamed up to make a documentary that focuses bringing awareness to climate change, the drought issues our country is facing and sharing stories of farmers that are implementing alternative techniques in drought-stricken parts of New South Wales. Out of hard times comes growth, and we are trying to spread that message in a hope that farmers might adapt to our climate forecasts. You can view more of the project here.
“From horizon to horizon, paddocks were dry as a bone. However, amongst them were some paddocks with plentiful grass and coverage, thick layers of organic matter on the soil surface”
We travelled out to the worst hit areas of New South Wales and what we saw was amazing. From horizon to horizon, paddocks were dry as a bone. However, amongst them were some paddocks with plentiful grass and coverage, thick layers of organic matter on the soil surface and a diverse range of plant species. How have these farmers achieved this? They have simply started holistic farming to regenerate soil carbon and nutrient levels. One family had even let their cattle trample the soil down on their dried-up creeks and river beds, which is exactly the opposite from what most farmers have been taught to do. The result is what was bare dust and mud flats have now been turned into rich grasslands. Seems impossible… but it’s not. You have to see it to believe it.