“Look Jamie, look! Baby lambs everywhere!”
Jamie glanced up from his device long enough to look out of the car window. The landscape was bright green even though the country was in a severe drought. Then he saw the tell-tale black mini water-wheels, signalling that they were passing through an irrigation area. Still pumping scarce water to fatten lambs. Jesus! Will we never get it right? he asked himself.
“Very nice, lovely little lambs, Gran.”
“And if they’re very lucky, they will become missionaries when they grow up.”
It was a few moments before what Gran had said registered with Jamie. He was quite busy typing a reply to a question on a forum which wanted information about alternative coding for a new smart-phone application.
“Missionaries? What do you mean, Gran?”
“I heard all about it on the radio, dear. Australia must keep sending live sheep and cattle overseas, to places where the people haven’t yet learned to be kind to animals.
“Australia already has people in those places teaching meat workers how to kill animals nicely, in the same way we do here. These lambs we can see here might be chosen to go there and help. We need to send lots of them because those people need a lot of animals to practise their humane killing methods. It’s true. It was on the radio, dear.”
Jamie stopped typing and looked at his grandmother intently. No, this was not one of her little tricks to stop him using his smart phone; she was for real.
“Apparently, these people didn’t have a God like ours who taught us to be kind to all living things. So we Aussies, with the help of thousands of sheep and cattle, are going there to put things right.”
Jamie wanted to laugh, but his mind was too busy sorting through what Gran had just said. Did she really believe this?
Jamie knew all about spin and fake news. What thinking nineteen-year-old didn’t? He and his friends saw it all the time on social media and stuff, but this seemed truly bizarre. Did other people think like she did, he wondered; or was his grandmother a one-off?
Jamie was enjoying his week-long stay at his grandparents’ country property.
Grandpa was much slower in his movements than his grandson remembered him from his previous visit. He was only thirteen then, and he remembered touring the outback property with his grandfather in the ute. That was nearly six years ago and since then Grandpa had turned eighty; plus he’d had an accident with the tractor which, while not life-threatening, had left him with recurring pain in his left leg if he walked too far, or when he drove for too long.
This time Jamie drove the ute.
The vast Western District pastoral property carried around fourteen thousand sheep and a couple of hundred cattle.
These days a farm manager–who also owned and managed his own farm close by–looked after the physical day-to-day working of the property, with Grandpa often going out with him to help sort stock. Grandpa was happy to open paddock gates or operate a race gate to sort stock and let his manager worry about mustering, and checking dams and fixing fences.
“We’re still de-stocking because of the drought, Jamie. Can’t see an end to it myself. People says it’s nothing to do with climate change but I think they might be wrong. I haven’t seen seasons like this in my lifetime. Wool’s down, so feeding animals is not profitable. We’ll keep a couple of thousand breeders I expect. The rest can go to the Middle East.
Now lad, head over towards those casuarinas. There’s a dam there I keep meaning to look at.”
Jamie swung the wheel and took the track towards a line of trees quite a distance off on the horizon.
Off to one side sheep were spread out for what seemed like kilometres, in a slow-moving wave of orange animals on orange dust. Then, in a voice that sounded as though he was talking only to himself, Grandpa said, “One could drive from here across to the Indian Ocean and not see a sheep lying down.
“Millions of sheep are walking all day and into the night poking about in the dust, looking for a feed; roots mainly, but even old weathered sheep shit, the bark off trees, anything they can put into their stomachs. They don’t have the time to lie down … unless it’s to die.”
Jamie knew about the drought. The environment was the major topic of interest amongst his wide range of university friends, both at home and abroad. Their knowledge was extensive and in their scientific fields of study, whatever their subjects–chemistry, biology, botany, statistics, engineering, physics, geology, medicine, even astronomy, and more–they could all find useful ecological and environmental niches to shine a light on.
But being here in the middle of it was different. Just seeing sheep not able to stand still or lie down, and knowing it was like this across much of the continent, gave Jamie a feeling he didn’t often allow himself, anger. Anger at the stupidity of people who you wanted to believe would know better than to let the planet get this fucked-up.
“Grandpa, how do sheep get sent away for the live export market? It must be only when a boat arrives at Portland? Portland is the loading place for stock from around here, isn’t it?”
“That’s right Jamie. A fortnight before a ship arrives in Portland, the exporter or their agent calls growers who have registered with them as having livestock to go, and gives them a date when they will be accepting stock into the loading yards. We then confirm that we will be sending stock and give them an estimate of the numbers. It works out well most times apparently, unless there is a problem with wet weather, and that doesn’t happen much.”
“Are you registered for the next boat, Gramps?” asked Jamie.
“No, but we are for the third one, after we’ve shorn the last of the wethers. That will be about mid-June, in eight weeks roughly, and we figure that by then we’ll have around two thousand head to go.”
The ute slowed as Jamie guided it towards a long dam bank in front of the row of trees. He drove slowly around one end of the bank so that they could look into the dam. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
A tiny pool of water filled the bottom of the huge bare concave, surrounded by a five-metre rim of mud. A large female kangaroo was stuck in the mud. Jamie knew that the animal was still alive. The upper part of her body was still upright and even though her eyes were closed, he knew she would be leaning over if she were dead. A metre away was the body of her joey, face down in the mud and obviously dead.
“Oh no. Poor sod. I should have got here earlier,” muttered Grandpa. “Well, we can back up and get a rope on her and dig around her and pull her out; or we’ve got a rifle behind the seat if you want to shoot her. Your call, Jamie.”
It took only a moment for Jamie to decide to get the ’roo out. It wasn’t that he couldn’t shoot her, just that he figured that she probably would survive once she was freed, so that was what he would do.
They backed the ute down as close as they could to where the animal was stuck.
Grandpa went to the back and got out a length of rope and a webbed belt saved from old horse harness and sometimes used to get stranded sheep out of dams. He bent and put the rope loop onto the tow-bar, then passed the rolled up bundle of rope to Jamie to lay out. Then he motioned to Jamie to look in the ute for a half-dozen old boards he carried to lay on the soft mud to walk on.
Jamie took out three boards and turned and walked as far as he could before the mud became too soft. Then he laid down a plank and walked out further and put down another. He had almost reached the kangaroo and when he straightened up and looked at her, he saw that one eye was watching him. Then the other opened and they stared at one another.
Jamie returned to the ute.
“We’ve got a water bottle, have we Gramps?” he asked.
“Yep, sure have, son.” Grandpa reached into the back of the car and passed out an old army flask.
“Thanks,” Jamie answered, and picking up the rope he headed out on the planks.
When Jamie came close to the ’roo, he made soft reassuring sounds, saying, “Easy girl; everything will be all right real soon.” He adjusted the last plank to get up close; then he placed a hand on the kangaroo’s back. She didn’t move. He uncorked the water bottle and, with one hand holding one side of her mouth open, he placed the metal neck in between her gums and teeth and poured a little water into her mouth. She still didn’t move and he poured a bit more in; then her neck moved involuntarily as it took in the water.
More water and more swallowing followed until Jamie thought she’d had enough. Then he walked halfway back to where his grandfather was waiting and holding a shovel.
He dug first in front of the animal, being careful not to go down too far to where her long feet must be buried, then at the back and on each side to where the base of her tail would be.
“Doing a good job, lad,” called his grandfather. “Just say if I can help.”
Jamie stood upright and smiled back at him.
“Looking good so far. Fingers crossed, Gramps.”
Jamie fastened the harness around the waist of the animal, just under her elbows, and joined the rope to it. He wondered whether it was the right place. “We’ll try that,” he murmured to the ’roo and himself.
“Can you do the driving, Gramps?” Jamie called.
“Sure can. Put your hand up and yell ‘Stop!’ if you want me to stop. Are you ready now?”
As Jamie stood in the hot sun waiting for Grandpa to make his way slowly up the bank to the ute, he reflected on how one’s circumstances could change so dramatically. At one moment he was immersed in study in the university library, looking forward to an evening out with friends at an inner-city bar, hidden in an old bluestone-floored warehouse that many years before had housed hundreds, maybe thousands of wool bales. Then, within what seemed like only hours, he was sharing his physical space with a kangaroo in a place where the hand of man was very evident but where the true master was neither a computer chip designer, a mathematician or a dictator, but the weather, or rather, the natural environment.
Jamie saw that his situation was really not a lot different from that of the furry animal beside him, except he wasn’t stuck in the mud. Being out here with his grandparents put him closer to reality than all the books in the library would ever do.
As the ute took up the slack and the rope grew taut, Jamie put his arms around the animal and lifted. He needed to be careful not to end up off the plank and in the mud. Slowly but surely she lifted in slow motion until she was fully out of the mud and partly standing on the same plank as Jamie.
Jamie put his hand in the air and called “Stop!”, and stood trying to work out what to do next. He loosened his arms from around the kangaroo slowly, watching to see if she stayed standing up. She wavered for a moment, then pulled herself nearly upright.
Jamie realised that he should have put down two planks side by side, as the animal needed a wider path than he did.
Just as he was deciding whether to go and get another plank, the kangaroo leant forward, placed her front paws on the plank and moved her back legs up towards them so that one leg was on the plank while the other touched the top of the mud only gingerly. She then repeated the move and within moments was out of the wet muddy area and onto the harder dry mud.
Jamie was thrilled. Then the kangaroo stood up and looked around and stared at Jamie as though to say, “Well, are you coming or not?”
Jamie laughed, but realised that things were not over yet. He needed to get the harness off the animal quite quickly before it made up its mind that it was time to leave. He approached her slowly as she stood looking at him. He knew that she was quite weak, but perhaps not so weak that she couldn’t become difficult to deal with if she got excited.
To his delight, she stood still as he unclipped the harness and drew it slowly away from around her chest.
“There, does that feel better?” he said softly. “Now how do I know you won’t head back into the dam?”
“Well done Jamie. I don’t think there is much more you can do unless we go home and get one of the big plastic water bowls and a bit of feed of some kind.”
On the way back to the house, Jamie’s grandfather said how he’d thought about not having checked that dam for three nights in a row and then each day something came up and he’d forget about it. He said he felt ashamed but also embarrassed that he so often forgot things these days.
The two men loaded a large plastic bin and filled two ten-litre cans of water from the shed tank. Then Grandpa grabbed a bucket and half-filled it with grass pellets. He pointed to the nearby hay shed and told Jamie to get a wafer of hay. Then they headed back towards the dam. Jamie thought this was a good moment to ask about Grandma.
“Does Grandma forget things too, Gramps?” Jamie asked, renewing the recent conversation.
“No, she’s good, your grandma. She does drive me mad though, sometimes.”
“Why is that, Grandpa?”
“She listens to too much talk-back radio and she’s always coming up with crazy ideas because of it. She usen’t to be like that. I’ve got my theories about it but I doubt anyone would listen,” he said.
“What’s your theory, Gramps? I’ll listen,” replied Jamie, with a supporting laugh.
“Well, there was a time when radio and even television were important. They gave us the news and entertainment. Important things when you live out in the bush.
“It started about twenty years ago I reckon, nothing seemed important any-more. The world just got too big. No one wanted to take a serious look at things because it either took too long or, if it was presented as serious, people no longer wanted to know.
“People wanted instant everything, or they thought they did. Well I started watching and listening, and over time I worked out what had happened.”
“You’ve got me, Grandpa. What happened?”
“What happened, Jamie, coincided with what was going on in the world. The discovery of amazing new technologies, and the concentration of investment in huge single corporate entities which we put under the label ‘globalisation,’ were the big things that happened.
“When that happened, along came new influences in mass-communication. Of them, the major two things were ‘spin’ and ‘sound bites’.”
Jamie’s grandfather stopped for a breath.
Jamie was impressed with his grandfather’s perceptive understanding of the modern world. But then why wouldn’t he be able to see how things really were? Grandpa was an intelligent man. He had been a university student in the 1950s, earning honours in mathematics and law. He had chosen to become a farmer later in life when he inherited the farm of his grandparents.
“So, what we’ve got now is a bucket full of babble. And your Gran is a prisoner of it.”
Jamie thought this might be an opportunity to mention the live-animal trade, to get his grandfather’s views on it.
“What you are saying, Gramps, I understand and agree with. It seems to me that the use and effects of ‘spin’ instead of natural exposition or reportage in the media, are more serious than people think.
“An example that you might not agree with me on, is the question of our live-animal trade. I would like to see it stop, and I, and many of my friends, actively promote banning it.
“Now you might not agree with me on this, Grandpa, but I mention it because, on the way to the farm on Friday, Grandma told me how she believed the sheep going overseas were like missionaries.
“Along with the Australian meat industry advisers, they would make it possible for people in foreign countries, who hadn’t had an understanding God like ours, to teach them how to be kind to animals.
“I must say that I first thought Gran was joking, but I soon realised that she wasn’t. Now to me, Grandpa, she was the victim of ‘spin’. Would you agree?”
“Totally … totally,” came Grandpa’s enthusiastic reply.
“You mean it’s not your view, Gramps? And you think she is the victim of spin?”
“Yes, to both. Your grandma is another story, but the live-animal trade is like a disease. We caught it back when shipping became cheap as a result of too many ships being built. Believe it or not, this ship-building came directly or indirectly from the extraordinarily huge amount of money that was printed and loaned out by the USA, beginning at the time of the end of the Vietnam war.
“It’s as if the world choked on the excess dollars and, suddenly, it was no longer the same world.
“Manufacturing goods cheaper abroad, in poorer countries, and dragging container loads of products around the planet to wealthier countries, became the basis of the new business model.
“Only now are people seeing the real damage that results from printing too much money.
“We’ve had the recent financial crisis in the US, the European currency cannot survive the loss of jobs to the Far East, and the US owes so much to China that each cannot do without the other. Add the threat of credit defaults in Italy and Greece and some South American countries and you quickly realise that things are more dysfunctional than anyone thought.
“And why is this so? You would want to say greed, but the truth is that it’s caused by ignorance. And don’t get me started on why that is. We’d be sitting here in the ute for bloody ever.”
There was silence for a while.
Jamie was impressed with what his grandfather had said. Most of it he already sort of knew, and it fitted in well with his and his friends’ world view.
Grandpa’s description of the financial causes of the current situation were new to Jamie, however, and he made a mental note to research it fully once he was back at uni.
And did grandpa really say “bloody”? Wow! He’d never before heard him utter a swear word of any kind.
“Grandpa, it seems to me that a lot of the problem relates to over-production. Do you agree?” asked Jamie.
“A phrase we’ve all grown used to hearing and never question is ‘economy of scale’. In other words, the belief that being able to produce a lot more of something leads to each individual item costing less, suggesting that we must all benefit.
“There is something innately wrong with the concept which takes a bit of explaining. It seems to make sense but in reality, if judged from the perspective of the ‘common good’, it is a disaster.
“It makes sense for a few things but not everything. It’s mostly an excuse to make money. One day we’ll talk through the arguments. That’s if I can remember, of course,” Grandpa laughed.
“You just suggested in what you said, Grandpa, that you don’t agree with sending livestock abroad. How come you’re planning to do so, and is this the first lot?” Jamie asked
“It is the first lot, and we have yet to confirm it with the agent. Grandma met some women friends for a shopping trip to Portland a couple of months back. The husband of one of them is an export agent and when the girls popped into his office for his wife to leave a message, your Grandmother mentioned we were on the land and it wasn’t long before he phoned and made an appointment.
“Over tea and cake he made everything sound so simple. And when I asked about conditions on the ship, he pulled out his folder of photos taken on one of the boats showing animals being well fed and watered, and generally cared for.
“It all seemed pretty good. And when I asked about what happened at the other end, he produced more pictures of the inside of an abattoir in Kuwait or somewhere, which looked much the same as any abattoir here.
“And then, of course, there is the money. We don’t get a lot, but in a drought situation like this, when we cannot run stock through till spring and fatten them for the local market, they have to go, regardless.”
“And if sending the stock away by boat wasn’t an option, Grandpa, what would you do?” Jamie asked.
“The simple answer is dig a pit for the bodies and shoot them. It’s the last thing in the world a farmer wants to do but, if there is no water or rain, there is no other option.
“I’ve seen it done once on a neighbour’s place, and awful though it sounds, I was impressed at how well the farmer handled it.
“Now that I’ve had time to think about things and since we’ve heard–and I think we can believe it–about the mistreatment of animals in some overseas countries, I’m of a mind that shooting the animals we can no longer feed is the better option. A quick death at home against a bloody awful trip abroad and the possibility of a cruel and painful end.
“The options are limited but I know which one I’d choose.”
Jamie drove slowly around the end of the dam, not wanting to frighten the kangaroo. To his surprise, she was nowhere to be seen. What surprised him more was that the ’roo’s baby had gone also. Jamie turned and looked at his grandfather.
“What’s happened to the joey, Grandpa? I’m sure it was dead.”
“It was, lad. And if you cast your eye way over there you’ll see it, or what’s left of it.”
Jamie turned and looked towards where his grandfather was pointing. Out in the orange dust of the paddock, two wedge-tailed eagles were feeding on something brown.
“They must be young birds. They would have been a bit nervous, and waited until she had come out of the dam before they took it.
“Looks like she’s headed off, probably into the trees. I reckon we should leave the water here in case she comes back. She should smell it, especially if we leave a bit of food nearby.”
Jamie filled the plastic water trough with the water.
“There’s a couple of heavy rocks in the back of the ute. Best put those in too. They should help stop it getting tipped over if she accidentally kicks it.”
When they headed off, his grandfather asked Jamie to keep driving parallel to the line of trees. When they came to where the casuarinas finished and a group of ancient red gums clumped beside a creek, Grandpa asked him to stop.
The two men left the ute and wandered casually towards the gum trees.
“What are we looking at over here, Gramps?”
“Well, Jamie, I’ve been thinking through what we’ve just talked about. I’ve known all along that shipping live animals was a bad idea and it shouldn’t happen and I have to start doing something about it now if we are ever to make a difference. I’m looking for a quiet spot where the digging is easy for the scoop on the tractor. We will need more than one trench of course so I will look around the property over the next few weeks.
“We’re not sending those sheep away after all. I’ve decided they will die here. No fuss, no loading and unloading. It makes sense, don’t you think, lad?”
Jamie smiled a broad smile at his grandfather. “Yes, Gramps, I certainly do.”
On the drive back to the farmhouse, the two were quiet. Then Grandpa asked Jamie if he would consider being there to help when the time came to kill the sheep.
“Sure, Gramps, and if it’s okay with you, I’ll bring a couple of friends.”
“It’s going to take a bit of organising, lad. And the job itself will take time. We definitely won’t be rushing it. I want to set an example to others who might also decide to face up to the truth.
“We’ve got to get it right. Things like killing in small batches and checking each kill was successful before burying. And I reckon we should kill from the back of the race–not the front–so that a beast doesn’t see what is happening to the one ahead of it.
“The situation demands we put as much thought as we can into it beforehand and I’d appreciate your help, Jamie. You’re a smart lad and you know a lot about all sorts of things and if you can get like-minded people interested, all the better. Now the only problem is how to tell your Gran.”
Jamie was already thinking about it. He could see a late-into-the-night group discussion with his friends looming. Something to really get our teeth into, he mused. Maybe a video would be in order; strict rules about filming and internet access, though. For a moment he thought about adding links to sympathetic videos, then pulled himself up. That stuff would happen without him needing to do it. Forget the spin.
Let the facts speak for the themselves. Grandpa would want that.
Dinner at his grandparents’ farm was always a delight and Jamie enjoyed helping in the kitchen.
Often Grandpa would join in, peeling the potatoes or shelling peas. There was a time, before his accident, when he would have kept working out in the shed or yards until Grandma called him in for dinner by banging on the metal bin lid that hung from the veranda roof outside the scullery.
Preparing the evening meal was a time when all three were actively doing something together and it reminded Jamie of being at school camp or down at the beach house with his family on summer holidays.
People working together usually joked and sometimes said silly things to or about one another that they would not otherwise have said if they were simply sitting having a meal or a cup of tea.
His grandparents could never resist at least one or two digs at the grandson’s vegetarian diet.
“What’s the vego having tonight?” was Grandpa’s favourite, usually followed with something like, “There is a new batch of lucerne pellets in the barn if you’d like to try them, Jamie? I knew you were coming so I ordered the ones with the extra mineral supplements and double molasses.”
And when the laughter died down, Grandma would say something in Jamie’s defence.
“Never having had a chop in his mouth hasn’t stopped him growing and I reckon he’s probably bigger and stronger than you were at that age, Mr Universe. And your hero, Cliffy, the sixty-one-year-old potato farmer who won the Sydney to Melbourne race, was a vegetarian.”
At dinner, the conversation would most often be about the family, or the farm, or about what Jamie would do when he finished his studies. Tonight, in the middle of the first course, Grandma dropped a bombshell.
“I am now of the opinion that we should not send our sheep overseas,” Grandma announced suddenly.
“While I think it’s a very worthwhile cause, the truth is we can’t afford the water,” she continued.
Grandpa sat with a piece of lamb impaled on his fork, halfway between the plate and his mouth, staring at his wife. Then he looked at Jamie and raised one eyebrow.
“Is that right, dear?”
“Yes, I heard it on the radio this morning. A listener rang in and said how, what with the drought and the problems with the environment, we shouldn’t keep sending our water overseas.”
Jamie and his grandfather exchanged glances.
“They made the very good point that our bodies are more than ninety per cent water and sheep and cattle are the same. I’ve forgotten how much water they said was contained in wheat, but it was also a lot, so we shouldn’t send that away either. It makes sense when you think about it, doesn’t it?
“Then they said if everyone stopped sending produce from one country to another, people would stop going on about that silly climate change. They said it wasn’t the–what did he say–CFCs or the CO2s that the scientists keep talking about, it was all that water going to where it wasn’t supposed to be — strawberries from Africa to Aberdeen or oranges from California to Canada, and so on.”
Grandma fell silent and continued eating, emptying her plate with the last mouthful of mashed potato.
Then she said, looking at her husband, “I’d suggest we don’t send our sheep away George. I’ve gone off the idea totally.”
Jamie and his grandfather looked at each other and then at Grandma. After a few moments, Grandpa spoke.
“Well, Mary, I don’t believe they should be sent away either, so I’ll ring and cancel their holiday trip with the shipping agent first thing in the morning.”
Grandpa beamed a relieved smile at Jamie.
Grandma smiled, then said, “Thank you dear. Now, who’s for fruit salad and ice-cream?”
Taken from Australian Short Stories by Richard Lee. Available from Amazon.